Michigan law says third graders with poor reading scores should be held back. How is that affecting Lansing-area schools?

·6 min read

LANSING — Thousands of Michigan third graders who struggle to read were recommended for retention under a recently enacted state law, but few Lansing-area students will be repeating third grade because of poor reading skills.

The Michigan Read by Third Grade law, passed in 2016, requires schools to identify and help students who are struggling to learn to read. For third graders, the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress provides a key reference point. Low scores in the reading portion of the test make students eligible for retention under the law.

About 5.8%, or 5,660 third graders statewide were identified for retention this year, up from the 4.8% or 3,661 last year.

The number of students retained in third grade was far lower because a number of exemptions exist that allow students to move on to fourth grade. No third grade students at four of Greater Lansing’s five largest school districts will be held back under the Read by Third Grade law. Districts cited a number of reasons.

“All of our cases, there were specific circumstances so that it made sense to go ahead and promote all of them,” said Glenn Mitcham, assistant superintendent for East Lansing Public Schools. “In some cases, the student had already been retained, which automatically qualifies students for a good cause exemption. Others had test anxiety which hindered them from doing well. Through other assessments and portfolios of work, we found out they were not more than a grade behind.”

Starting May 18, the state Center for Educational Performance and Information began sending out letters to families alerting them that their third graders had been identified for retention under the law.

Fewer than 1% of East Lansing Public Schools’ students received the letter, Mitcham said. The state recommended about 13.7% of Lansing School District’s 771 third graders for retention, with about 2.5% of Grand Ledge Public Schools’ third graders and four Okemos Public Schools third grade students.

Each of the schools worked with students who ultimately were allowed to advance.

This was the second year of the retention policy being in place. More students took the M-STEP this year, increasing from 71.2% last year to 98% this year, and the number of students eligible for retention rose with it.

Under the law, parents of students facing retention can apply on behalf of their children for good cause exemptions that allow them to advance to fourth grade. Among the reasons they can cite are such things as the student has learning disabilities, is an English language learner, has already repeated a grade, or has been enrolled in their current school for less than two years and evidence shows they did not receive an appropriate individual reading improvement plan.

Parents or legal guardians also can request the child be allowed to advance if the school district’s superintendent, chief administrator or another designee agrees that promotion to the fourth grade would be in the best interest of the student.

The retention possibility of the law continues to draw criticism among parents and educational professionals.

“Retention decisions should be on a student-by-student basis, in consultation among parents, teachers and administrators,” State Superintendent Michael Rice said in a May 27 press release. “In general, however, the idea that a given score on a state assessment should generate retention makes no sense. Student performance in multiple ways should be considered before a decision to retain a student.”

At Okemos Public Schools, parents or guardians, principals, teachers and other support staff review all student data, not just M-STEP scores, to determine whether a student eligible for retention should repeat third grade, said Stacy Bailey, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

All of the four students identified as candidates for retention were able to meet one of the exemptions and advance, she said.

Most schools follow a similar process when determining whether their students should be promoted. And aspects of the law, such as communication with parents and guardians through individualized reading improvement plans, are already “universal best practices,” Bailey said.

Some school officials fear the law does more harm than good.

Mitcham said the law is “wonderful, except the part about retention.” Because of the law, school districts assess third graders and those students who are reading below grade level are connected with assistance.

Some children struggling to read receive additional support at school and through “Read at Home” plans. Working on reading skills outside of school can be critical to improving reading ability, Mitcham said.

At Lansing School District, the law has hurt more than helped, said Sarah Odneal, director of diversity, equity and inclusion. The individualized reading plans educators are required to develop for struggling students can be seen more as a compliance document, she said, rather than an opportunity to work with parents toward the success of their children.

When students are held back, Odneal said, the likelihood that they drop out later in their educational careers increases. As a result, the school district sends letters to parents with retention warnings.

“It causes anxiety for our families,” Odneal said. “They’ll get a letter from the state saying their child is eligible for retention and then we’ll send a letter with warning of retention.”

In addition to the requirements under the law, schools like those in Lansing School District are working on different efforts to help their students avoid retention. She said professional development and instructional coaching have been key in Lansing School District.

Prior to COVID-19, Lansing School District teachers gave instruction in grade-level content while other staff helped students in specific areas on the side. Now, through professional development and training, teachers have conduct the intervention support, Odneal said, by using different classroom methods, like small group instruction and layering in support through co-teachers.

Okemos Public Schools conducts benchmark assessments three times a year to track academic success, Bailey said. The results are reviewed to determine whether there are students who need additional educational assistance.

Additionally, Okemos Public Schools assigns an instructional coach to each elementary school to work with teachers, support staff and parents and guardians to monitor students’ progress with the intervention.

“This is an ongoing process throughout the school year to provide targeted support for identified students,” Bailey said.

Other efforts include a partnership with the nonprofit Kids Read Now to send free weekly grade-level books to all kindergarten and first grade students, as well as second and third grade students who had received interventions over the past year.

That work to help students improve their reading skills continues beyond the third grade if the students are cleared for a fourth-grade promotion.

At Grand Ledge Public Schools, and in other districts, students who move on to fourth grade through the approval of a good cause exemption are matched with support they need and the “strongest classroom instruction possible,” said Assistant Superintendent for Academic Services Bill Barnes.

“Our instructional and support practices have changed over time as the result of new research around the science of reading and reading instruction, and we consistently use multiple data points to help ensure that our students are growing as early readers. The law has not changed these practices," Barnes said, in an email.

Contact Mark Johnson at (517) 377-1026 or majohnson2@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMarkJohnson.

This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: No Lansing-area students retained for low reading scores under new law