Thousands of Michigan third graders flagged for retention under reading law

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Letters are coming to homes of nearly 2,700 third graders this week informing parents their child has been flagged for retention under Michigan's controversial Read by Grade Three law.

Adopted in 2016 by the GOP-controlled Legislature, the law says third grade students can be stopped from moving to the fourth grade if they read a grade level behind based on their score on the state's reading assessment.

Starting Wednesday, letters are being sent via certified mail by Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance to students who score 1252 or below on the English language arts portion of the M-STEP. The M-STEP testing window ends June 4 and new letters will go out weekly.

Luke Merem, 7, of Troy, holds up his whiteboard with the word eating during literacy and reading assignments, on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

As of this week, about 67,000 of the state's more than 104,000 third grade students had completed the reading assessment and letters to the parents or guardians of 2,699 students who did not meet the cutoff score to advance to the fourth grade are going out this week, according to CEPI officials.

"Testing is still ongoing and both students tested counts and retention letter counts will change over the course of the next several weeks," CEPI officials said.

According to a Michigan Department of Education memo dated May 14, William Pearson, an MDE interim deputy superintendent, said about 56,000 third grade ELA test results had been posted, a number that "represents approximately 80 percent of all third grade tests" the department anticipates for the year.

Some children did not take M-STEP this year, either because they remained in remote learning for a test that must be taken in school or because a parent excused them from the test.

Families have 30 days from the date they receive a letter to contact the school’s superintendent and request that their child not be retained through an exemption process. Educators can also request an exemption, but the final decision rests with the superintendent.

The law says families must be notified by June 1 of eligibility and that districts must make decisions on retaining students 30 days before the first day of the new school year.

Many Michigan superintendents have said say they will not enforce the retention portion of the law this school year.

Educators along with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state Superintendent Michael Rice have asked state lawmakers to drop the retention portion of the law after students experienced chronic learning disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, Rice said the Michigan Legislature should have addressed retention months ago.

"Third grade retentions are bad public policy, and particularly bad during a pandemic. Even the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged that end-of-year state tests should not be used for high-stakes decisions in the pandemic," Rice said.

Troy's Leonard Elementary School first-grade teacher Lorraine Hogan, of St. Clair, talks with Athmika Kushal, 7, of Troy, on her desktop screen on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

"In the absence of action by the state legislature to set aside Read by Grade 3 student retentions this year, local school districts need to work carefully with families to focus on reading supports and minimize retentions and the resultant adverse impact to children,” Rice said.

The retention portion of the law was to be enforced for the first time in the 2019-20 school year, but state assessments canceled due to the pandemic delayed it.

Based on the last available M-STEP scores in the 2018-19 school year, nearly 55% of third grade students scored less than proficient on the English language arts test.

Researchers studying the law suggest it might force a larger percentage of Black students, students with disabilities, students from low-performing schools and students from charter schools to repeat third grade.

Some school districts are informing families ahead of time about the news. Dania Bazzi, superintendent of Ferndale Public Schools, said her Oakland County district reached out to families already to explain the law and ensure they knew their options and rights.

Bazzi said three students were being flagged as eligible in her district and she does not anticipate retaining any students based on individual circumstances. Only 54% of her third graders took the assessment.

"We are taking it on a case by case basis," Bazzi said. "Philosophically, retention is not in the student's best interest in most cases. There are outliers where it may be appropriate. It's not simply a test score that will make the decision."

Bazzi said all families in her district will know about retention decisions by the end of June.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have introduced legislation to pause the law, saying students and educators have faced an unprecedented and exhausting school year and should not be punished for circumstances that are out of their control. Those bills remain stalled.

Since the fall, local districts have been following the law — screening young students within the first 30 days of school, documenting reading intervention plans and contacting families.

During the school year, the state education department has offered grants to districts to hire early literacy coaches to work directly with teachers to support improving literacy for grades K-3. MDE has also conducted webinars about the reading law requirements and how to help students virtually and posted literacy resources online.

Parent Theresa Wegner said school districts need to do a better job of supporting readers who struggle including those with dyslexia like her daughter.

Wegner removed her daughter from public school last fall in Oakland County and began homeschooling to provide a reading program designed for students with dyslexia. 

Wegner's daughter did not take the M-STEP, but local assessments done by Clarkston Community Schools where her daughter attends some classes showed she made some reading gains this year.

Wegner wants the focus to be on providing all students with the proper supports to be proficient readers – not retention.

"For kids like mine there needs to be something in the school to teach them the way they can learn," Wegner said.

"It is good sometimes to get this feedback to raise the alarm and find out what you need to do to get them what they need," Wegner said of retention. "Sometimes it's pulling them from school like I did."