Mich. dip in 3rd-grade reading worst of 11 states

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Despite investing heavily in early literacy since 2015, Michigan schools showed the largest decline in third-grade reading levels among 11 comparable states in the last three years, according to a new education report.

Using three consecutive years of data starting with the 2014-15 school year, Michigan ranked last among the group for changes in third-grade reading proficiency, according to officials with Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization.

Michigan was at the bottom of the group, behind Delaware, Vermont, Connecticut, Idaho and West Virginia. California, Hawaii and Washington state showed the most improvement on the test in the last three years. Those states use standardized tests similar to Michigan’s.

Michigan has fared poorly in several educational measures in recent years. About 56 percent of third-graders did not pass the reading test on Michigan’s state assessment in 2017. A Brookings Institute analysis last year also found that the state’s students made the least improvement in National Assessment of Education Progress scores since 2003.

The new findings were released in a new report published by Education Trust-Midwest on Tuesday called “Top Ten for Education: Not By Chance.”

The report is based on nearly two years of research, including conversations with educators working at the classroom, school, district, intermediate school district and state levels.

Michigan’s declines came at the same time the state targeted investment to improve reading outcomes — from 2015 to this school year.

The state’s investment in early literacy — more than $76 million in the past three years — added instructional time and allowed districts to hire literacy coaches. The Michigan Department of Education is also using money to develop a statewide literacy leadership and learning network for families, coaches, educators and administrators as well as update educator preparation standards.

The state also passed in 2016 a third-grade reading law, which calls for the retention of third-graders who don’t pass the grade-level state assessment in reading in the 2019-20 school year.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, said three consecutive years of M-STEP data reinforces national assessment findings about the decline in Michigan’s educational performance. M-STEP is the state’s standardized test.

“Michigan’s young students are just as bright and talented as other students around the country,” Arellano said. “The question is not whether we should be investing in improving third-grade reading for Michigan children. The question is: How does Michigan become more effective at improving teaching and learning, as leading education states have done?”

The report is critical of Michigan’s approach to early literacy investment and implementation, alleging the state has isolated strategies without coordination, lacks a strategic approach to training or professional development for educators, lacks oversight and accountability for results and has no method of continuous collective learning.

It points to other states — such as Massachusetts, Tennessee, Florida and Alabama — where targeted reforms are taking place.

Michigan lacks a single statewide kindergarten-readiness assessment that is used to measure a child’s preparedness as he or she enters kindergarten. In Florida’s voluntary prekindergarten program, students are annually assessed in the first 30 days of kindergarten.

Martin Ackley, a spokesman for the state education department, said improving the literacy levels of Michigan’s youngest students is a key focus of the state’s superintendent, governor, board of education and Legislature as part of the state’s Early Literacy Initiative.

“MDE has been collaborating with districts to implement various phases of the new third-grade reading law. The law gets supports to students struggling to read. The work really starts before third grade. We need to engage the parents, too, to get them more involved in their child’s learning,” Ackley said.

“The need to get all children reading at grade level by third grade is urgent, and Michigan schools are in the early stages of using the state funds to develop reading intervention programs.”

The report’s recommendations call for state education officials to provide more support for teachers and principals, closer alignment between early childhood and K-12 systems and supplying stronger curriculum and instructional resources.

Ackley said the state will work on the Early Literacy Initiative for the next few years.

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

Under the new reading law, which kicked in this past 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.

In the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the number of third-graders who scored proficient in reading on the M-STEP was 9.9 percent in 2017, meaning more than 90 percent of students could not pass the test.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told The Detroit News last month that his third-graders have been making improvements in reading since Michigan passed its third-grade retention law. Vitti said the district has plans to install an entirely new curriculum next school year to address literacy issues.

“We know where students stand. Right now mid-year, our third-graders are doing better than before. We did a better job of diagnosing where they are in reading, and we know whether to intervene. We are on the right path after only a few months of work here,” Vitti said.