How can schools improve childhood literacy? For decades, educators have tried to crack the code. From the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 to the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, policymakers have searched for ways to ensure struggling students do not slip through the cracks in the education system. In a renewed effort to attack low literacy amongst students, Michigan lawmakers passed the Public Act 306, or the Read by Grade Three Law, in 2016. The law aimed to identify and support students who struggled with reading by having them repeat the third grade if they were a year or more behind their grade level. The law went into effect in the 2019-2020 school year and there has been much debate about its viability, effectiveness and possible downfalls. Teachers, parents and administrators across the state contemplate what this law means for their students.
The Michigan Department of Education released a “Facts for Families” page that answers some of the most pressing questions about this new law and what it means for students. Within the first thirty days of the school year, students from kindergarten to third grade take an assessment to identify student reading levels. Those who are identified as having lower reading levels for their age level are put on an Individualized Reading Improvement Plan (IRIP). Through frequent reading progress checks over the year, students remain on this IRIP until there is no longer a concern. Every student takes the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) in the spring of their third-grade year. Under this new law, students who score one or more grade levels below the third-grade reading level may be retained or held back to repeat third grade. The word “retained” sparks concerns for parents and teachers alike, so it is important that the public understands what retention looks like for these students.
Firstly, students can be granted a “good cause” exemption from this retention rule if they fall into one of multiple specified categories. These categories include students who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPS), Section 504 Plans, or are English Language Learners with less than three years of English instruction. There are also rules that pertain to students who have been previously retained or are new to a district. Additionally, a superintendent can grant a “good cause” extension based on a parent’s petition. Ultimately, the final decision is made by the school principal and/or superintendent. If a “good cause” exemption is not approved, the school will provide the student with a reading program that is specifically designed to address their reading concern. This program may involve a reading specialist, small group work, or specialized reading help.
For years, many educators have viewed retention as a positive and viable way to ensure students do not fall behind in the education system. However, many studies have shown that while retention may provide positive initial results, the effects do not withstand the test of time. A study of Florida’s retained students by Jay Green and Marcus Winters (2007) initially showed positive student growth during the first three years after retention. Even so, this increase was short-lived. In the years after retention, the students did not show statistically significant improvement and did not test higher on standardized tests than their counterparts who also scored below reading level but were not retained. While this study does not disprove the positive effects of retention, the lasting effects of retention as a school policy is a growing concern.
Another perspective on this issue comes from Assistant Professor of English at Hope College, Dr. Whitford, who has her Ph.D., in Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education. Dr. Whitford stated, “While I always appreciate any effort to make sure that every child is receiving education that meets their needs, I am deeply cautious of policies that take educational decisions away from the teachers and parents that know these children the best. I think it’s also important to know that a reading score is a compilation of reading skills and sometimes even outside factors. Therefore, repeating a grade level doesn’t necessarily ensure that the specific skills are being addressed at the needed intensity.” Whitford concluded, “Overall, I think assessments are best used to help us develop specific, purposeful next steps for instruction, rather than broad policies like repeating a grade.” In this message, Dr. Whitford points out the complexity of this issue. There are many layers to childhood literacy, and creating policies to aid in the process has already proven to be complicated.
Even though the waters concerning the academic results of retention are muddy, the question still stands: how can schools ensure that students who struggle with reading receive the help they need? Proponents of the Read by Grade Three law argue that third grade signifies a cut off between “learning to read” and “reading to learn.” Therefore, if a student’s reading struggles are not addressed by third grade, it will be significantly harder for the student to function and thrive in a classroom as the years progress. Additionally, many say that the law will not affect a large number of students. According to a Michigan State University study, districts reported retaining 545 students for the 2022-23 school year under the law. This represents 0.6% of all third graders in Michigan, and 9.6% of the 5,680 students who were eligible to repeat third grade. Therefore, only a small percent of students who were marked as being a grade or more below their reading level were actually held back.
Contrastingly, opponents of the law are concerned that holding all students to the same reading standard set by a test is not an equitable way to ensure reading skills are taught. Specifically, many educators worry about the disproportionate effect this law will have on students of color. The same study by Michigan State University found a significant gap between black and white student retention, with 14% of black students and 6% of white students retained. This data highlights how economically disadvantaged students are twice as likely to be retained than white students, and how low-performing and urban districts are more likely to hold back retention-eligible students. With this disparity, the state must oversee that the law is being equitably enforced throughout districts, especially in areas where the law is affecting students of color.
All this information may leave you wondering: what is the solution? This is the same question that educators and policymakers have been trying to answer for decades. While people across the country argue both sides in response to the implementation of third-grade reading laws, finding a single, perfect solution will not be easy. As schools continue to implement specialized reading programs and teacher-development opportunities, Michigan lawmakers and educators aim to do everything in their power to help students succeed.
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