Opinion: Give third grade reading law a chance

Mike Jandernoa
Studies show that retaining struggling students helps them catch up, while students who are promoted without the instruction they need, fall further behind, Jandernoa writes.

Our children deserve our support. Michigan's third grade reading law is finally being implemented after a three-year phase-in. It would be unjust to these students and their classmates to delay full implementation further. Some in Lansing are proposing actions that would repeal a key part of the law and do just that.

The 2016 reading law requires districts to identify students who cannot read proficiently by the third grade and provide them with the extra support, resources and help needed to move to the next grade level — or hold them another year for even further help.   

Multiple studies have shown that a student’s ability to read proficiently by the end of third grade is crucial for future learning. By fourth grade they need to be “reading to learn” — a skill that impacts the rest of their life. If a student can’t read proficiently in third grade how can they be expected to keep up in each grade after? Moving these students forward without teaching them to read is a cruel punishment that only assures future failure.

Studies show that students who aren’t proficient in reading by the end of third grade are four times more likely to not graduate from high school. African American and Hispanic students not reading in third grade are six times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Reading is essential far beyond the school years. Studies have shown that 7 out of 10 inmates in the U.S. prison system cannot read above a fourth grade level.

Yet Michigan’s reading scores are abysmally low. The recent news of Michigan’s education ranking increase is nothing to celebrate — we stayed flat, other states simply got worse. Sadly, details in the NAEP report show that 69% of our kids are behind on reading scores.

Legislators rightly worked hard to look at ways to start reversing this trend. In 2016, with input by many in the education community, the Read by Grade Three law passed that supports both teachers and kids with resources to reach children as early as kindergarten. 

Holding children back so they can achieve future success is not "punitive" it is pro-active. We want our kids to succeed, and teachers would agree. Ask a teacher how well it works trying to teach a room full of third graders where 7 out of 10 of her kids are reading at first grade or below. Passing illiterate kids on to the fourth grade teacher is not the solution. We need to help kids right now, with extra support. Even if it takes an extra year.

A Manhattan Institute study that looked at programs in other states show that retained students are able to catch up, while students who are promoted without the instruction they need, fall further behind.

Students who received this extra year and instruction outperformed their peers who barely passed for promotion in both reading and math, and they have a higher probability of graduating with a regular diploma. Michigan should expect nothing less.

While it may be hard for adults to hold back those who don’t achieve a second grade reading level by the time they finish third grade, the Legislature should not change course and condemn our kids to future failure. Kids need help, not excuses.

Give the current law, in its full implementation, a chance to work – our kids deserve it.

Mike Jandernoa is policy chair of the West Michigan Policy Forum.