Michigan May Reverse Law Requiring 3rd-Graders Behind in Reading to Repeat Grade

Michigan education advocates and leaders urged committee to pass bill to remove controversial retention component of Read by Grade 3 law

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Michigan education advocates and leaders urged the Senate Education Committee Tuesday to pass a bill to remove the controversial retention component from the state’s Read by Grade 3 law.

Senate Bill 12, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), aims to reform Michigan’s third-grade reading law by removing a mandate that requires schools retain third-grade students who are a grade level or more behind in reading based on the English Language Arts portion of the state’s standardized test, the M-STEP.

The bill passed out of the committee Tuesday and will next go to the full Senate. All Democrats on the committee voted to advance the bill, while Sen. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs) voted no and Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Twp.) passed on the vote.

The current law, which was signed by former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, also includes required interventions for struggling students, like literacy coaches and individualized learning plans. 

Michael Rice

“The Read by Grade 3 law simply requires too much time spent justifying a determination of retention or not at the expense of focus on the children’s literacy needs in early elementary,” said Michigan Department of Education Superintendent Michael Rice.

Rice, as well as other advocates for SB 12 who spoke to the committee, said there are some aspects to the current Read by Grade 3 law that they like, such as adding literacy coaches to schools, reading intervention services and evidence-based curricula and instructional services.

“While we agree with the student reading support in the Read by Grade 3 law and other efforts to improve literacy, we are strongly opposed to the retention requirements,” Rice said.

Rice also noted that repealing the retention component of the law “does not remove the ability to retain children in extraordinary circumstances.”

“The most recent meta analysis on retention shows that there is actually zero effect on student achievement,” said Katharine Strunk, director of Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC). 

Strunk notes that other studies show that students who are retained early in their education have lower social-emotional development, increased likelihood of disciplinary incidents, lower graduation rates and a higher likelihood of criminal activity later in life.

Strunk also cited a recent EPIC report that shows retention-eligible Black students were retained at higher rates than students of any other race or ethnicity in 2021-22 and were 2.4 times as likely to retain Black than white students.

The 2021-22 school year was the first year the law was in effect after being pushed back a year due to concerns about COVID-19-related learning loss and a temporary federal waiver of standardized testing in March 2020. 

Retention-eligibility rates increased from 4.8% in the 2020-21 school year to 5.8% in the 202-22 school year. Despite nearly 6% of third graders flagged as retention-eligible, districts retained just .6%, or 545 students, of all tested students.

“The current law is one of the most inequitable education policies we have in place right now,” said William Weir, a retired Detroit middle school teacher and member of 482Forward, a Detroit-based education advocacy group. “And the fact that this law is being applied disproportionately to Black and low-income students should be an immediate red flag showing that it needs reform.”

Not everyone supported the change.

Rep. John Damoose, Jan. 12, 2022 (Laina G. Stebbins)

Damoose said during Tuesday’s committee hearing that now “doesn’t seem to be the time to do anything to weaken our standards or limit accountability.”

“But I’m also concerned with schools’ abilities to provide these effective interventions,” Damoose said. “How conceivable is it that schools even have the resources to provide effective individual intervention and tutoring?”

Strunk said a partial solution to that problem would be to address the leaky teacher pipeline and invest in schools to make education a desirable profession for teachers and literacy coaches.

Education advocates across Michigan applauded the committee for taking action to repeal the retention component of the law.

“We’re encouraged by Sen. Dayna Polehanki’s leadership on this critical issue. As a teacher, Sen. Polehanki knows first-hand that a one-size-fits-all approach to retention is not sound education policy,” said Peter Spadafore, executive director of the Michigan Alliance for Student Opportunity. “The decision to retain a student should be made by parents, teachers and local education professionals, not by heavy-handed state laws that disregard the needs of the student.”

Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan said Tuesday that “by removing the law’s focus on punishing students that have fallen behind and allowing educators to instead partner with parents to design a recovery plan specific to their student, we will help kids across Michigan learn, grow and succeed once again.”

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