3rd-grade reading bill set for final votes after deal

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A long-stalled proposal designed to boost third-grade reading rates and hold back more struggling students is again on the move in the Michigan Legislature.

A House-Senate conference committee approved Tuesday evening a revised proposal and sent it back to the House and Senate for final up or down votes, possibly as soon as Wednesday.

“I think what we just adopted is a very fair compromise between the House and Senate-passed bills, so my hope is we can put this one behind us very soon,” House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, told reporters after the committee vote.

Gov. Rick Snyder requested the legislation more than a year ago, calling third-grade reading a “foundational” ability that can predict a student’s long-term opportunity for academic success.

About 46 percent of third-graders notched proficient English marks on the 2016 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, down from 50 percent the previous year.

The legislation would generally prohibit a school district or charter academy from advancing students to fourth grade if they are a full grade level behind in reading on the M-STEP, a locally approved alternative assessment or a work portfolio.

Proposed exemptions to the retention requirements were a major sticking point between House and Senate plans, prompting leaders to convene the special conference committee to negotiate differences.

The revised bill advanced Tuesday would allow parents to request a “good cause” exemption from a superintendent, but it eliminated the option for a principal and reading teacher to decide that a student should advance to fourth grade.

State Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, was the lone vote against the compromise legislation, arguing that the exemption process would favor wealthier students whose parents may be more engaged in their child’s education.

“Students who are homeless or who live in very poor circumstances ... are going to be held back all the time in disproportionate numbers,” he said. “I’m really concerned that this bill inadvertently targets poor kids for retention.”

Zemke proposed an amendment that would have allowed a school official — not just a parent — to request a “good cause” exemption, but it was rejected by the Republican majority.

The revised legislation retains a “smart promotion” provision allowing a student to advance to fourth grade but take remedial reading classes if they score well on a state math test and demonstrate proficiency in other subject areas.

Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, schools would be required to provide additional assistance to struggling readers, including individualized improvement plans and the utilization of literacy coaches provided through intermediate districts. The House also pushed to add early intervention provisions specific to English language learners.

The requirements are likely to increase costs for the state, local school authorities and charter academies, according to a Senate Fiscal Agency analysis of an earlier version of the legislation.

The new state budget, signed by Snyder in June and set to take effect in October, includes a funding increase for at-risk students, literacy coaches and administrative costs for the Michigan Department of Education.

Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project advocacy group, praised the compromise deal and said he believes the state funding will be adequate for implementation.

“There’s no factor that means more to academic success than third-grade reading proficiency,” Naeyaert said. “There’s an international consensus on that point, and this is the state putting a bright line in the sand that we expect students to read at grade level.”

Under the revised legislation, the state Center for Educational Performance and Information would be required to provide parents with notification of possible retention. School districts could also send their own notifications.