Whitmer aims to educate parents on reading retention law

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday she wants to better educate Michigan parents about exemption options to the state's third grade reading law  an apparent effort to weaken a Republican-inspired requirement. 

The controversial law, adopted in 2016 by the GOP-controlled Legislature, stops third grade students from moving to the fourth grade if they read a grade level behind on the state's English Language Arts assessment, which measures reading, writing, listening and language. Supporters have said the law directs resources to help students improve and is aimed at stopping ill-prepared students from failing in the future

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reads to students at Northeast Elementary School in Jackson last year.

"This punitive law could be a nightmare for families, and this initiative will give parents and students the resources and support they need to get through it," Whitmer said during her Wednesday speech.

The governor's plan calls for working with the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, the Battle Creek Community Foundation and other nonprofits to educate parents about the exemptions written into the law that would prevent a third grader from being retained. 

State lawmakers created exemptions in the retention legislation. They include students with special education accommodations, students with less than three years of instruction in English-language-learning programs, students who show grade-level proficiency through a portfolio of work and students who perform at grade level on a state-approved alternative assessment.

Parents and educators can request an exemption, but the final decision rests with the superintendent. Any child granted an exemption would not be retained, reducing the estimated 5,000 students who are projected to be flagged for retention this spring.

The Michigan Department of Education has published a good-cause exemption fact sheet on the third grade reading law.

Many Michigan educators and advocates do not support retention and have serious concerns about the law. Some have called for it to be repealed.

Last year, researchers studying the law suggests it might retain a larger percentage of black students, students with disabilities, students from low-performing schools and students from charter schools.

The Education Policy Innovation Collaborative released a study in June analyzing estimated retention rates for the spring that found up to 11% of African American students might be retained, compared to up to 2.6% for white students. About 9.5% of special education students might be retained, compared to 3.6% of students without disabilities.

The Skillman Foundation in Detroit is one of the philanthropic organizations that has been asked by Whitmer to assist in the initiative. Punita Thurman, vice president of program and strategy at Skillman, said many districts already are having conversations with families on the law, but it's not consistent district to district.

"People are doing it piecemeal. The anxiety about the impact of this law has been brewing for years. This is an opportunity to thinking about it across communities," Thurman said.

"You need to have not one but multiple pathways and modes of communication into communities. ... We need to help people make sense of these options. It's scary to get a letter that your child may be retained. It's not just the notification process. We have to support and make sense of all the options."

Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he appreciates the governor's initiative, but his district is already doing the notification and education on exemption options with parents and the community.

"Through individual schools, we will ensure parents know the exemption exists before any retention is finalized," Vitti said. "Additional outreach can never hurt, but we would prefer energy be spent on changing the law and funding focus on providing students with additional research-based, proven literacy intervention."

Mark Greathead, president of the Tri-County Alliance and superintendent of Woodhaven-Brownstown Schools, said the initiative is a good step to lessen the law's harm, but the law should still be revamped or repealed.

"We agree with Governor Whitmer completely that the law, as written, will likely do further harm to students that instead need additional support," Greathead said.

"The partnership model that Governor Whitmer has unveiled is a good intermediate step to lessen the law's potential harm, but we believe the retention requirements in the law are ultimately going to need to be revisited and significantly reworked or repealed outright."

Beth DeShone, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a charter school advocacy group, said there is nothing more important than early literacy support for success and eliminating the law would devastate Michigan students.

"Michigan’s third grade reading law provides students with the resources and supports they need to read at grade level before they leave the third grade, and the governor’s aggressive attempts to undermine the law will cost many the chance at a brighter future," DeShone said.

"The third grade reading law is designed to ensure every student is treated and educated with the dignity and the respect he or she deserves — equipping them for the future, instead of failing year after year before sending them to a classroom where they’ll only fall further behind."

Last week, Dearborn Public Schools sent letters to parents of its 1,500 third graders explaining the law and their right to request a good cause exemption. Based on test scores from last school year, about 30 students would have been flagged for retention.

"Dearborn Public Schools will hold parent meetings at our schools immediately after the state sends out these notifications. School staff will explain the good cause exemption process and will support parents in filing an exemption within the required 30 days after parents receive the letter. If approved, an exemption request will allow your child to continue on to fourth grade," the letter to parents said.

Superintendent Glenn Maleyko said on Wednesday that he supports the governor's plan to work toward educating all parents across the state on the law and their rights.

"We are doing a proactive approach in educating parents. I applaud her in taking these steps to educating parents of their rights for their students. They may not know about it," Maleyko said. "Just two days ago, I was talking to parents who don't understand the law and are confused."

In 2019, the Michigan Department of Education approved a set of cut scores — selected points on a test's score scale — for third graders taking the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, in the spring that will be used to make decisions for retentions. 

Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information will be sending certified letters to students who score below 1253 on the ELA M-STEP assessments and who are eligible for retention.

Families receiving a letter will have 30 days from the date of the letter to contact the district superintendent and request their child not be retained. Teachers and other educators may also request an exemption on behalf of a child, Maleyko said.

The final decision for retention is made by the local district superintendent. Districts are to notify families of their retention decisions at least 30 days before the start of the 2020 school year. 

In some districts, the 30-day appeal window will extend beyond the close of the school year.

Earlier this month, state education officials moved up the window for the statewide spring assessment by a week to give parents of third-graders more time to appeal test results that could lead to their child's retention.

According to two memos obtained by The Detroit News, the Michigan Department of Education "strongly urges" school districts to begin testing third graders on the M-STEP at the start of the test window to allow educators to meet deadlines in the law involving communicating with families about retention decisions.

Michigan Education Association officials said the research is clear that retention will disproportionately impact the state's at-risk students most.

"Ensuring parents know what options are available for their children under the third-grade reading law is important, and we look forward to working with this effort to ensure educators are equally well informed about what alternatives the law provides," MEA spokesman Doug Pratt said.