Mich. 3rd-graders face rising threat of being held back

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

If Michigan can’t dramatically improve a dismal proficiency rate in reading among elementary students, the state could be looking at holding back more than half of its third-graders by 2020.

Parent Dawn Banks has mixed feelings about the new law as her son, Alasdair, heads into first grade at Pattengill Elementary in Berkley. Her son is in the first class affected by the tougher rules.

That’s the implication of a tough new state reading law that in three years will prevent students from advancing to fourth grade without basic reading skills.

About 56 percent of third-graders did not pass the reading test on Michigan’s state assessment in 2017, meaning about 60,308 students would have faced being retained under Michigan’s new reading law if the retention trigger was in place.

“We should be preparing for that,” said Michele Farah, a literacy consultant at Oakland Schools, who has been advising districts since last school year on how they should be getting ready for the law.

“We should be thinking about that and how do we move that number. I hope that is the positive from this bill: How do we become more effective in our teaching?”

Although the reading law that gives the state the power to retain struggling third-graders doesn’t kick in until 2020, students, teachers and parents will feel its effects this fall.

Students in kindergarten through third grade must undergo three reading assessments during the school year, with the first given within 30 school days.

Students with reading problems must be given individualized reading plans, and schools are required to inform parents in writing about their child’s deficiency within 30 days. Parents will be required to take part in “read-at-home plans,” and students will see more small group and one-on-one intervention time in school.

School districts with struggling readers will be required to provide teachers with additional professional development during the school day and literacy coaches who will train and offer feedback on teaching practices.

Jill Chochol, executive director of elementary education at Dearborn Public Schools, said the district was aware of the legislation last school year and formed a work group of teachers and administrators to prepare for the first wave of provisions in the law.

The district created an action plan based on teacher surveys, data dives and recommendations it received from a work group. The Wayne County district has 21 instructional coaches, with one at every elementary school, who will focus exclusively on literacy, Chochol said.

If online teaching aides such as those above don’t produce the required test results, students must be given individualized reading plans.

Smaller class sizes in kindergarten and 15 early childhood specialists who will provide support to get every kindergartner at grade level reading are part of preparing for the new testing rules this year and the retention requirement in 2019-20, she said.

“The new law is also a great opportunity to solidify and strengthen our partnership with parents,” Chochol said. “We have teachers working to do their best, but when a child starts behind, many stay behind. We need parents’ support to continue the support.”

Parent Dawn Banks has mixed feelings about the new law as her son, Alasdair, heads into first grade at Pattengill Elementary in Berkley. Her son is in the first class affected by the tougher rules.

Banks said Alasdair reads every day for 20 minutes, using books and his tablet, which has a reading program set to his level.

“It’s a tough one. I see what they are saying in there is probably a lot of kids who don’t get the assistance they need. But it’s kind of scary for our kids and teachers to put them through this. What if the kids test bad? What if your kid doesn’t test well? I was a terrible tester, but a good reader,” Banks said.

What’s the next step?

Michigan became the 37th state to adopt third-grade reading legislation in 2016. The law stops third-grade kids from moving to the fourth grade if they read a grade level behind on the state’s English Language arts assessment, which measures reading, writing, listening and language. A child can only be retained once.

Michigan uses the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, to assess students in the third grade. What test will be in place in 2020 when the retention requirement is triggered is not clear, state education officials say, but the law requires a state assessment be used.

In Wayne County alone, 38 school districts had proficiency scores of less than 5 percent in third-grade reading on the M-STEP. In Oakland County, there were four districts, and in Macomb County, two districts had less than 10 percent proficiency.

But lawmakers created exemptions in the retention legislation. They include students with special education accommodations, students with less than three years of instruction in English language learning programs, students who show grade-level proficiency through a portfolio of work and students who perform at grade level on a state-approved alternative assessment.

According to Education Commission of the States, 16 states plus the District of Columbia require third-grade retention. Of those, 14 offer conditional promotion options. All states that require retention also require a system of intervention.

In Rochester Community Schools, Michael Behrmann, executive director of elementary education, said the types and number of assessments already in place in the district are similar to what the law requires, so students shouldn’t notice much difference.

“We have always intervened in the past when a student has had a reading deficiency,” he said. “Now it’s more formalized.”

This summer, the Oakland County district added Camp Literacy to its list of academic offerings. About 80-90 first-graders from across all 13 schools came, said Wendy Beitel, an early literacy coach with Rochester Community Schools.

Test-based retention laws in third grade have been criticized by teachers and educators. The Michigan Department of Education opposed the bill’s mandatory retention requirements.

“The law is the law. It’s not our position to be happy. Our job is to do the right thing, and that’s to ensure we have literate students leave our system. If this law is an impetus to do that, so be it,” Behrmann said.

Bill DiSessa, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said while the department disagreed with parts of the retention legislation, it supported providing interventions to students struggling to become proficient in English language arts.

A study released in June examining the effects of Florida’s third-grade retention law found that retaining third-graders resulted in increases in the short-run of reading and math achievement, but the gains from retention fade out entirely within five years.

It also found retention improved course grades in high school but had no effect on high school graduation rates, said Martin R. West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who co-authored the study.

The study examined student data over 14 years for the first two groups of students affected by the policy. The Florida law took effect in the 2002-03 school year.

“A lot of the critics of retention say students may benefit in the short run but they will be harmed in the long run and are less likely to complete high school because they are older than peers,” West said. “We found they took fewer remedial courses in high school and got higher grades in the courses they took, but we found they were no more likely to graduate than if they had not been retained.”

‘Personal issue’ for Vitti

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, worked in Florida as superintendent when the reading law was in place there. Vitti said he sees the value in ensuring children are reading at grade level by third grade.

“But overall, I find the policy insensitive to realities that children bring with them to school, some of which include poverty, English language status and disabilities,” Vitti said. “This is a personal issue for me. I am dyslexic. I was a lower-level reader, and I got a full presidential scholarship to Harvard.”

Parents can request an exemption for their child to move to the fourth grade even if they’re struggling to read, according to the law. A superintendent could approve that request.

Another exemption would let some students move up to fourth grade if they take remedial reading classes and get a certain score on the math portion of the M-STEP. But they also would have to do well enough in science and social studies to move through the pipeline.

In 2016 and 2017, only 9.9 percent of the Detroit district’s third-graders were proficient in reading. Vitti acknowledges the number of DPSCD students who could be held back — if current state test data was used — would be staggering, but he expects the actual number to be lower.

“With exemptions, that number would hopefully be lower,” Vitti said. “And between now and then, there is a conversation about alternatives tests to M-STEP and the creation of a (student) portfolio. Those are things I would immediate lobby for. Research says we should not make decisions solely based on a test.”

Christopher Portalski, whose son, Xander, entered first grade in Royal Oak this fall, said he likes the idea of giving extra support to children who need it.

“It seems like a lot of kids are falling through the cracks, and to have literacy coaches and things to make sure that he is right on track where he needs to be,” Portalski said outside his son’s summer school class, which focuses on reading and math, earlier this summer.

“If they need to hold him back another year to mature, that’s a good thing,”