Opinion: Retaining 3rd graders on test score is regressive, not innovative

Dayna Polehanki
We must do away with the test-and-punish piece of Michigan’s reading law, Polehanki writes.

Making sure kids can read seems like a win. Yet 5,000 Michigan students could be held back if we don't fix our third grade reading law and invest in educational resources.

After the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores were released, some believed that “social promotion” — passing students to keep them with their classmates — was the cause of some students’ insufficient progress, so legislators passed a test-based grade promotion law for all Michigan third grade students, with some exemptions. 

What resulted was a third grade reading law for Michigan, modeled closely after a Florida plan, mandating retention for students who do not meet grade-level expectations on a modified version of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP).  

If a student doesn’t meet the minimum score on the reading portion of the M-STEP, the child’s parents must be notified their student will be held back. Parents then have a 30-day window in June to meet with a school administrator to ask for an exemption “in the best interest of the student.”

Here’s one of the problems with the law: Michigan is not Florida. Florida has universal preschool and class size limits, making it possible for gains to be about more than just accountability reforms, whereas Michigan does not. Florida also allocates significantly more funding for literacy coaches and other reading supports than Michigan, and studies of their program show that even short-term gains for retained students disappear over time.

Experts who have studied retention practices agree that, at best, it’s neutral. At worst, it yields negative effects on academic outcomes — including aggression, increased rates of high school dropouts and reduced college attendance — and moreover, there is a psychological impact. In a study, elementary-aged students had to rate 20 stressful life events. The students listed being retained in school among the top three, along with losing a parent and going blind.

This law is unnecessarily punitive. A recent study by the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) at Michigan State University on estimated retention rates in Michigan showed that rates may be higher for African American and special education students. Also, an early study of the Florida program revealed that nearly 70% of retained students were recipients of free and reduced-price lunches.

In Michigan, more than 5,000 third graders could be held back in the 2019-20 school year, when the retention piece of the law goes into effect. Not only is it expensive to retain so many students (Florida spends $60 million per year), schools have always been able to retain students for poor academic performance if it’s deemed in their best interest.

Let’s trust our teachers and schools to determine who to retain and when rather than forcing a test-based grade promotion law on them.

I introduced a bill to keep only the beneficial parts of the third grade reading law, including progress monitoring of students on their reading abilities, using early literacy coaches and reading intervention programs, providing K-3 teachers with professional development opportunities on reading, and notifying parents of early literacy delays and providing them with “Read at Home” plans. This bill would eliminate mandatory grade retention based on a student’s M-STEP score.

No two students are alike. Retaining kids based solely on a test score isn’t innovation — it’s regression. We must do away with the test-and-punish piece of Michigan’s reading law, invest in early childhood education and literacy coaches, and give families and education professionals the ability to tailor a path that is right for each student.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Plymouth, is a former English teacher and current Democratic vice chair of the Senate Education Committee.