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Third Grade Reading and Reality

Just in time for the holidays, there are a new group of action figures fighting for Michigan’s third graders.  We’re not yet sure what mom and dad think about these new heroes, who are fighting for literacy at grade level, but teachers’ first response was to call Batman to fight the Joker(s).

We shouldn’t call our legislators jokers.  Rep. Amanda Price, R-Holland, and members of the House Education Committee, are serious about making sure students read at grade level.  Everyone knows students must learn to read by third grade so they can read to learn thereafter, right?

It’s a good discussion to have, but it’s easy to see how educators may have become defensive.  The two-page bill just said students must be proficient or held back.  And it came out of nowhere, like a rock thrown through the superintendents’ window at night. 

It caused a ruckus.  Educators complained long and hard about the negative effects of retention and, to their credit, there are almost no scholarly studies extolling the virtues of retention.  Simply put, students suffer when they fall behind their peers and retention does nothing to improve their plight.  Neither do years of social promotion, claim those who insist we must do something. 

As is sometimes the case, they’re both right.  There are a lot of reasons why retention may be an option, but an extremely poor one, for students at the third-grade level.  To begin with, Michigan’s third-grade assessment, the MEAP, is administered in October at the early grade levels.  So we’re really measuring second grade proficiency instead of third.  Child development specialists will tell you a large percentage of boys don’t really catch on to the whole reading thing until the end of second grade.  In addition, elementary principals can provide a laundry list of programs and interventions they deploy to help students with reading before third grade and after.

If that’s the case, then why do state reports indicate 33,000 students or more would be retained if their promotion to fourth grade depended on reading proficiency?   Let’s start with another statistic: 53 percent of students from kindergarten through third grade qualify for free and reduced lunch, which is the federal measure for poverty among students.  At all grade levels, the number is just over 48 percent.  These students can learn, of course, but they start behind their peers and their domestic life provides struggles they must overcome to succeed in school.

Here’s another interesting data point.  Over the past six years, Kent ISD schools have reduced the special education population by 15 percent.  This is no small accomplishment, and it was achieved through testing and intervention at early grade levels.  Third-grade reading proficiency could be increased through the same process.  If that’s the case, why aren’t schools doing more?  Simply put, it’s a lack of resources. 

The basic foundation grant, which is the primary source of unrestricted revenue for schools, is just 4 percent higher today than it was in 2003.  Since that time, high school graduation requirements were dramatically increased, new mandates have been placed on schools and the costs of virtually everything required to provide an education have grown at a rate that far outstrips the meager 4 percent increase in funding over the past decade.  Schools are, in fact, operating at about $250 per pupil less than they received in 2008.

If retention were the answer to the third grade reading problem, schools would – to be blunt – be foolish not to hold students back.  They’d receive an additional year of funding for those students and they’d receive another year of time on task for both students and teachers.  For those who think it’s all about the money, guess again.  It’s about what’s best for students, and schools are doing the best they can with the revenues they have.

Kent ISD superintendents this year adopted third-grade reading at grade level as one of four overarching goals, along with kindergarten readiness, math proficiency at 8th grade, and career-and college ready graduates.  We share these goals with Talent 2025, a business roundtable group of CEOs from a 13-county region seeking to grow and retain a high-quality supply of talent to help the region grow and prosper.

The early childhood investment made by our Legislature last year is a good start on ensuring Kindergarten readiness and third-grade reading proficiency.  But it is not enough.  Our schools need the resources to extend early assessment and intervention to a broader population of students.

It now appears the third-grade reading retention discussion will continue into next year, as many House members were wary of moving the Price bill and companion legislation in the last days of the 2013 session.  It would be well if they were to ask for a frank discussion of the resources necessary to adequately educate our children when they return to the issue in 2014.

Kent school districts have proven we can improve the learning trajectory of students with learning disabilities and they can do it with reading proficiency if their resources were adequate to meet the needs of children.  

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Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler
Ron Koehler is the Kent ISD Superintendent and offers his commentary on issues in education.


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