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Thankfully, Michigan’s mandatory 3rd grade retention bill won’t become law this year.

Just in case it comes up again, though, here is some input from students, the stakeholders whose viewpoint is often missing in education policy debates. I asked 3rd-grade English language learners Andrina, Joey, Selena, Sarah, Kennett, and Christian about the 3rd grade retention bill.

Five of these students began kindergarten in U.S. schools at a basic level of English proficiency while Andrina came from Iraq two years ago. These children have steadily progressed toward proficiency, but as 3rd graders, they are reading below grade level.

The students quickly saw problems.

Andrina pointed out, “What if people are like, from Iraq or somewhere else and they still don’t know how to read?”

Christian added, “pretend after tomorrow is the last day of school, then yesterday a kid came, he’s low level. It’s the end of the year, it’s no good.”

I assured the students the bill had a two-year exemption for English language learners like themselves, but Andrina felt this wasn’t long enough. “When I read, I still don’t know all the words. I think maybe you need three years.”

Actually, Andrina is still too ambitious. Generally-accepted research in second language acquisition says it can take up to five to seven years for English language learners to reach grade level. Andrina also saw a potential problem with older newcomers: “Lets say, people will come and they’re already in fourth grade, do they have to be held back to 3rd grade? Until they already finish 3rd grade?”

All of the students, including Selena, acknowledged they were reading below grade level: “I’m not that kind of good at reading even though I practice and practice and practice,” but felt being retained would mean, as Joey put it “doing the same thing every time.” Kennett agreed: “We don’t want to do the same thing.“ They have a point; why would another year of the same-old, same-old help? This highlights the importance of targeted interventions for at-risk students instead of retention.

Christian cannily asked me, “When you were in 3rd grade, what level were you? Did the law be like this when you were in 3rd grade?”

I assured him I hadn’t the slightest idea of my reading level as a child, unlike these students, who are acutely aware of it.

Christian was correctly trying to point out that 3rd grade reading level doesn’t necessarily define you as an adult.

Tellingly, Selena observed, “We don’t read that much at school. We mostly do our work.”

This confirms studies that show students spend very little time in school actually reading. All of the students wanted to emphasize their progress and effort. Selena told me, “I’m working as hard as I can,” and Kennett said, “ I’m reading chapter books as hard as I can.” How to improve one’s reading? Everyone knew: “By reading a lot at home and at school.”

The students fully comprehended the intent of the mandatory 3rd grade retention bill. Selena said, “They just don’t want people to pass if they don’t have a good level” and Sarah understood the anticipated good consequences, “They want you to learn, to get to a better level so you can learn more better.” In the end, however, Andrina spoke for everyone by saying it was “a really bad, bad bad idea.”

When I agreed, she asked, “Can you go tell them?”

Consider it done, Andrina.

Barbara Gottschalk, English language acquisition teacher, Susick Elementary, Warren Consolidated Schools

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