Bill pausing third grade reading law sent to full Michigan Senate

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A bill that would suspend retention for Michigan third graders this spring but broaden it to fourth graders next school year is moving to the full Senate.

The Senate Education Committee moved two bills in a 4-2 party-line vote to pause the controversial third grade reading law this year but restart it in the 2021-22 school year and apply it to both third and fourth graders.

In a surprise move, the substitute bill's original sponsor, Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newago, testified against the bill on Wednesday and asked the committee to reject changes that he said neither he nor his staff approved.

Bumstead said he sponsored a bill to suspend holding kids back but he does not support the committee's changes.

"Our local schools need our help and empathy for all that they've gone through over the past year," Bumstead told the committee.

"Not only are these changes bad for our local schools, but these changes were never negotiated with me or my staff," Bumstead said. "To say I am disappointed with this process would be an understatement."

The other bill would allow a parent or guardian to have the final decision on whether a student repeats a grade rather than a school district superintendent.

The Detroit News reported that letters are already coming to homes of nearly 2,700 third graders this week informing parents their child has been flagged for retention under Michigan's Read by Grade Three law.

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.

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.

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.

The bill's co-sponsor, state Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, said on Wednesday third grade is a key year for students to learn how to read and reading ability is tied to graduation rate and future academic success.

Horn said the pandemic was thrust upon students, teachers, administrators and parents and that lawmakers need to act and give third-graders an extended learning opportunity. 

"Not every state closed their schools to in-person learning," Horn said. "Giving them an opportunity to extend this catch-up period into the fourth grade is an absolutely appropriate thing to do."

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, voted against the bills and said mass retention does not work.

"It doesn’t help kids to read," Polehanki said. "Data shows that retaining kids can be emotionally harmful in a typical year, but in a pandemic, it's my feeling that it's just plain cruel."

David Randels, director of government relations and education policy at Oakland Schools, said lawmakers have had months to respond to calls to pause the "state’s ridiculous and unfunded 3rd grade reading disaster law" and remove retention as punishment.

"These letters are going out and the Legislature decides now they want to change the rules?" Randels said. 

Robert McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, said the substitute bill is no solution to a bad law.

"They are recognizing it seems the problem they have created with this law, that it is punishing student unfairly this year. And the solution is to punish more students next year?" McCann said.

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

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.