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3rd grade reading retention bill heads to Snyder

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — More than a year after Gov. Rick Snyder began a push to boost third-grade reading rates, state lawmakers sent him a bill Wednesday that would require schools provide more assistance to struggling readers and hold them back if they fall too far behind.

Education experts say that third-grade reading is an important predictor of a student’s opportunity for long-term academic success.

The legislation, approved by both the Republican-led House and Senate, would generally prohibit a school from promoting students to the fourth grade if they read at a full grade-level or more behind their peers, although exemptions could be granted.

A “smart promotion” provision would allow students to enroll in the fourth grade, but take remedial reading classes if they perform well on the math portion of the M-STEP and have shown proficiency in science and social studies work samples.

Sponsoring state Rep. Amanda Price, a Park Township Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, said the bill is necessary because “Michigan is experiencing a crisis in literacy.”

About 46 percent of third-graders had proficient English marks on the 2016 M-STEP, down from 50 percent the previous year.

The legislation is “critical to our children and our futures,” Price said on the House floor shortly before the 60-47 vote, mostly along party lines. Her bill passed the Senate less than an hour later in a 25-10 vote, with two Republicans and eight Democrats opposed.

State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., who said he had a hard time voting for an earlier draft of the bill, opposed the final version, which removed the ability for teachers to initiate a “good cause” exemption to advance students.

“I think setting an arbitrary date by which something has to be achieved doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for kids,” Hertel said after the vote. “Having four kids of my own, I know they grow and learn at all different times and paces.”

Snyder convened a legislative workgroup in March of 2015 to analyze Michigan’s third-grade reading statistics and propose policies to boost rates. The workgroup unveiled recommendations that June, but related legislation stalled multiple times before the House and Senate struck a compromise deal this week.

The governor will need to review the final language, “but this has been one of his priorities and (he) is happy to see the initiative has moved forward,” said Snyder spokesman Ari Adler.

Under the legislation, reading proficiency would be measured by student performance on the M-STEP, a locally approved alternative assessment or a portfolio of student work samples.

Parents could request a “good cause” exemption for their child to advance to fourth grade despite reading struggles, which a superintendent or designee could grant if either determines it is “in the best interest” of the student.

An earlier version of the legislation would have also allowed a teacher or principal to request an exemption, but that option was eliminated under a compromise version of the bill that advanced out of committee earlier this week.

The change disappointed Paul Liabenow of the Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association, who said it may disadvantage homeless students or those who may not live with their parents for various reasons.

“Our concern continues to be that our most needy students, our most impoverished students, will not have equal access to a good cause exemption,” he said, “but we hope to find ways to level the playing field for all students when we believe they should be promoted to fourth grade.”

But the “heart of the bill is on the right track,” Liabenow said, adding the legislation has improved since discussions began 18 months ago.

Beginning in 2017-18, school districts would be required to select a screening tool to identify struggling readers in kindergarten through third grade. For those students, schools would have to develop individual reading improvement plans, provide “intensive reading intervention” and notify parents.

Principals would be required to offer specialized professional training for teachers and utilize “early literacy coaches,” as employed by intermediate school district, to offer teacher support and professional development.

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 2016 and 2017 state budgets include more than $63 million in combined funding for various early literacy initiatives, according to the Snyder administration. Appropriations include money for targeted interventions, screening, home visits and more.

But Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said his organization is worried because the 3rd grade reading bill does not include direct funding to implement new local requirements.

“We want to make sure we do this right,” Wigent said. “We all want children to read at the third-grade level, and we appreciate the spirit of this legislation, but we continue to have concerns.”