LANSING, Mich. (AP) — An initiative to improve Michigan third-graders’ reading is caught up in a dispute among lawmakers about making students repeat a grade if they lag too far behind.
The clash is big enough that the early literacy bill — which Gov. Rick Snyder called for more than a year ago — was sent to a conference committee to resolve differences.
Under the proposed law, students could not enroll in fourth grade starting in the 2019-20 school year unless their state reading score is less than one grade level behind, they show proficiency through an alternative assessment or demonstrate mastery through work samples. Sixteen states require the retention of third-graders who do not meet grade-level expectations in reading, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Third grade is considered a key benchmark because it is the last year students learn to read before transitioning to reading to learn.
Key sticking points in Michigan include the level of parental involvement and the number of exemptions under which kids could still advance to fourth grade for “good cause.”
Legislators agree on exceptions for those with disabilities, a limited grasp because English is their second language or they have been previously held back despite receiving intensive reading help for at least two years. The Senate, however, added three more — for newer students who did not receive an appropriate individualized reading intervention in their old district, those whose principal and reading teacher agree that other evaluations show they are ready for fourth grade or the superintendent determines that an exemption is in a student’s “best interests.”
The House version — approved on a mostly party-line 57-48 vote by the Republican-led chamber in October — lets a parent ask the third-grade teacher to recommend an exemption to the school principal, who, after discussing it with the teacher, could urge that the district superintendent grant the exception. The superintendent would then inform the parent of the decision.
The Senate version cleared the GOP-dominated chamber in March on a 31-6 vote with more bipartisan support. It requires that a state agency notify parents if their child is at risk of being kept back because of their score on the state reading assessment and that they have a “right” to request a good cause exemption and a meeting with school officials.
Advocates of holding back some third-graders as a last resort — such as the Great Lakes Education Project, a school-choice advocacy group — fear the Senate plan is more of the same in a state where only half are proficient on the state’s new reading assessment. House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said senators “relaxed” the retention requirement.
“There’s a line in the sand. We need kids reading at third-grade levels really well before they can go on. That might have been blurred a little bit in the Senate,” said bill sponsor Rep. Amanda Price, a Holland Republican who chairs the House Education Committee.
But supporters of the Senate proposal, which is backed by many key stakeholders in the education community, say it empowers parents to take ownership of what is a major decision for their child and is a realistic policy proposal that schools could actually implement successfully.
“We took some mandates out of it and replaced it with parental involvement. There wasn’t support for the way it came over from House. We worked for a number of months to get to a compromise,” said Sen. Phil Pavlov, a St. Clair Township Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Lawmakers are more united on parts of the legislation unrelated to retention — such as requiring schools to assess and screen all K-3 students on reading beginning next school year and to intervene with those with deficiencies. “Literacy coaches” would model appropriate instruction and training for teachers.
Michigan fourth-graders ranked 41st-lowest among the states on a national reading test in 2015, and the state was one of just five to lose ground from 2003 to 2013. Snyder, who helped set aside about $30 million for early literacy initiatives in the current budget, wants Michigan in the top 10 nationally by 2025. But the conflict over keeping some pupils from advancing threatens to complicate the effort.
GLEP Executive Director Gary Naeyaert said the Senate version “pretty much just keeps in place what everyone’s doing now,” and most superintendents would not “stand up to the angry mother” who thinks her child should still be promoted to fourth grade. Less than 1 percent of students currently repeat third grade. It is unclear how many would be retained under the competing versions of the bill and how much more it would cost the state over time.
“We can’t have a bill so shallow that it doesn’t move the needle,” Naeyaert said.
But Kenneth Gutman, superintendent of Walled Lake Consolidated Schools in Oakland County, said retention is detrimental to students and he has seen no evidence that it works. The legislation is a “very good reading bill absent the retention piece,” he said, contending that schools’ time is better spent on early intervention because holding back more third-graders based on a state test would do more harm than good.
“We want students reading by third grade at grade level,” Gutman said. “But certainly there are so many factors involved in trying to determine whether or not to retain a child that to mandate it is simply ludicrous.”