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Schools Gear Up to Prepare for Third-Grade Reading Law

Student Supports, Exemptions, Ease Parent Retention Fears

During a recent Literacy Night at Oriole Park Elementary School, teachers dressed like superheroes, activating their powers to help parents best support their children’s reading development. Students also donned capes and masks, ready to soar up, up and away with their reading levels.

Oriole Park Elementary kindergartner Lauren Byington shows off her book

Oriole Park, in Wyoming Public Schools, is working to stay ahead of the curve in getting as close as possible to 100 percent of students proficient in reading by the end of third grade.

Sessions were geared toward English, Spanish and Vietnamese parents at the diverse school.

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“The goal is to get parents on board to be a collaborative partner for us to improve our reading scores as a school,” said Principal Jennifer Slanger.

Superhero gear seems appropriate for educators statewide facing the same challenge. The state’s third-grade reading legislation (Public Act 306) sets a hard line: by the 2019-20 school year, all third-graders need to be within one year of grade level in reading or face retention (see related story). At first glance, that appears to create a large group of to-be-held-back students; on the state’s spring M-STEP exam, just 44.1 percent of third-grade students were proficient in reading. In Kent County, 48.6 percent passed the benchmark.

A Parent’s Guide to the Third-Grade Reading Law

In an effort to boost reading achievement, Michigan lawmakers passed Public Act 306 in October 2016, because Michigan’s test scores on both the Michigan-based M-STEP ELA assessment and the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) reading assessment have shown a need for attention to early reading and literacy.

To help more students be proficient by the end of third grade, the law requires extra support for K-3 students who are not at grade level in reading. The law states that, beginning in 2019-2020, a child may be retained in third grade if he/she is one or more grade levels behind in reading at the end of third grade.

1. What do I need to know as a parent?
➢ Your child’s reading progress will be closely monitored.

➢ If your child is not reading where expected, a plan to improve reading will be created. This includes:

  • Extra instruction or support in areas of need
  • Ongoing checks on reading progress
  • A read-at-home plan

➢ If you are notified that your child may be retained, you have the right to meet with school officials and to request an exemption if you believe it is in the best interest of your child. You have the right and are encouraged to be involved every step of the way!

2. How Will This Affect My Child?

In Grades K-3:
➢ Your school will use tests to identify students that need extra help with reading.
Identified students:

  • Are at risk of not passing the M-STEP English language arts test in third grade.
  • Are not reading at the expected level for his or her grade level and time of year.

If your child is identified as needing extra help, your school will provide your child with an Individual Reading Improvement Plan. This means your child’s teacher and school will work with your child to find where he or she needs support in reading development and to create a plan.

➢ The extra supports in your child’s plan will occur in small groups during the school day.

  • Your child will not miss regular reading instruction.
  • Part of your child’s reading plan will include a read-at-home plan that encourages you and your child to read and write outside of the school day.
  • Your child may also be encouraged to participate in summer reading programs.

In Third Grade:
➢ Starting in 2019-2020, a student will not be promoted to fourth grade unless he or she:

  • Receives a reading score of less than one year behind on the grade 3 English language arts state assessment (M- STEP).
  • Shows a grade 3 reading level on another test approved by the state superintendent of public instruction.
  • Shows a grade 3 reading level through a portfolio, or collection, of student work in all grade 3 ELA standards.
  • Is proficient in all subject areas other than English on the M-STEP, or shows proficiency in science and social studies through a portfolio.

NOTE: A child will only be required to repeat third grade once.

➢ You will be notified by the state and district if your child may be required to be retained.
➢ You as a parent have the right:

  • To ask for a ”good cause exemption” with the school or district within 30 days once notified.
  • To request a meeting with school officials (principal, etc.).

3. What are the exceptions?
“Good cause” exemptions may be made if your child:

  • Has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan for special learning needs or disabilities.
  • Is an English-language learner who primarily speaks a second language.
  • Has had a Reading Improvement Plan for two or more years and was previously retained, including developmental kindergarten.
  • Has been enrolled in their current district for less than two years and did not receive reading support.
  • Is on grade level in all other subjects as determined by the M-STEP.
  • The student’s parents or guardian has requested an exemption within the required time period and the superintendent, chief administrator or designee determines that the exemption is in the best interest of the student.

➢ If a request is made, the district superintendent will make a decision in writing and notify parents.

➢ The decision will be shared at least 30 days before school begins. The decision is final.

4. What if my child repeats third grade?
His/her class will be with a highly rated teacher and/or reading specialist.

➢ Most of the day will be spent on reading instruction, but some fourth-grade standards will also be taught.

➢ Students will still have an independent Reading Improvement Plan and get extra support.

➢ Student progress will be closely monitored.

Source: Kent ISD Teaching & Learning

Reality is, though, that the law allows several “good cause” exemptions, including the opportunity for parents to excuse their child from retention if approved by the local superintendent. Also, the M-STEP isn’t the “be all, end all.” Districts can refer to their own assessments, such as the Scholastic Reading Inventory, in demonstrating a student’s proficiency.

Inarguably, there is a lot of ground to be made up. At some West Michigan schools, fewer than one in five third-graders scored proficient or advanced on the M-STEP.

“We just need to continue to get better,” Slanger said about her school’s scores. “The ultimate goal is to strengthen students’ reading skills and then have that transfer over to their standardized test scores.”

Focusing on the Early Years

In response to the law, educators are zeroing in on early education by identifying and more closely monitoring where a child is struggling beginning in kindergarten, and creating individualized plans accordingly. That way, when students get to third grade – the first year students take the M-STEP – they have the best shot at being at grade level, said Kent ISD educational consultant Mark Raffler.

In kindergarten and each year beyond, students take “screener” tests, such as DIBELS, during the first two weeks of school to gauge where each child is at in his or her reading. They must be tested twice more during the school year.

The tests are designed to be short, predictive of future success and should have proven effective in the past. From those results, a teacher can begin monitoring where a student struggles in five areas: vocabulary, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency and comprehension.

Schools were already doing this kind of work with existing support staff members and intervention specialists, but the law is requiring them to become more focused and streamlined, Raffler said. “The law, in my interpretation is requiring us to acknowledge best practices that many of our districts were already implementing.”

Another increased focus is on materials, and whether each school’s curriculum is proving effective in all areas of reading. If that’s not the case, a program needs to be replaced or layered with supplemental materials to meet areas of need, Raffler said. Grant money is available to pay for these extra materials to meet the demands of the law.

Students who are behind will receive an Individualized Reading Improvement Plan to address gaps in their reading skills, along with an outline for monitoring progress.

Parent involvement is also key. Read-at-home plans for parents to work with their children will be important to student success. Schools such as Oriole Park are also hosting literacy nights.

Raffler said Kent ISD hopes to partner with area libraries to make staff members familiar with Parent Read-at-Home plans, and Reading Improvement Plans allowing library staff to direct parents to resources to meet the needs of their children.

But What if They Fail the Test?

So what happens if, despite all these efforts, a child still scores not proficient on the M-STEP at the end of third grade? Don’t panic. There are several “good cause” exemptions, including if a child is receiving special education services or is an English-language learner, or if a superintendent signs off on a parent’s request for an exemption.

Sara Shubel, East Grand Rapids superintendent, has been fielding the question from scared parents, “Will my child be held back if she or he doesn’t do well on this one test?”

Her short answer? No, of course not.

“Our goal is to be informed about students from the day they start kindergarten right through to graduation,” Shubel said. “We start to inform parents immediately about their child’s strengths, their opportunities for growth, what we are doing as a school system to support them and how parents can partner with us. We will always be looking at the entire package, looking at ‘Where is their struggle?’ so we can provide the support they need.

“Ultimately, we as a district are not going to only use one assessment, whether it is a state, a local or a national assessment, to determine whether a child will stay in third grade or not,” she added. “When I tell parents that, you can see them all get the look that says ‘I get it.’ ”

Is Retention Justified?

Rockford Superintendent Mike Shibler agreed student promotion should be based on more than one test. He emphasized the district has long had in place extra help for students not up to grade level in reading, beginning in kindergarten. All students are tested within the first month of school and, if needed, put on an individualized reading plan, he said.

When parents understand there are exemptions under the new law they are reassured, Shibler said. Besides the “good cause” exemptions specified under the law, he said he will consider a wide range of factors, including input from teachers, if a parent requests their child be promoted to fourth grade despite not being proficient on the reading test.

“If all that came out that the child was working to the best of his or her ability and receiving the interventions that are required and necessary, and still not reading at third-grade level, I would support the parent and say we’ll move the child to fourth grade,” Shibler said.

In fact, he adamantly opposes the law’s provision for retaining children in third grade, insisting retention is punitive and ineffective — a point he and other superintendents have made to lawmakers, he said.

“The overwhelming majority of research shows it does not work, so what is the point? To show the number of kids not reading at grade level, and make it into some kind of media show? Or single out schools whose kids are not performing?

“Kids are not on an assembly line: If they’re a bad product, you discard it,” he added. “You have to look at the total child. That’s the way it should be.”

Many other school leaders do not support mandatory retention either, said Chris Glass, director of legislative affairs for West Michigan Talent Triangle, a consortium of area districts. The group successfully lobbied to move back the bill’s original retention provision from 2016-17 to 2019-20, and also to push back retention eligibility for English-language learners to three years of English instruction from two, Glass said.

Their advocacy made “dramatic improvements” to the bill, including the parent opt-out provision with the superintendent’s approval, he added: “Which means although a standardized assessment may be a catch point, the placement decision for students is still in the handsof the parent, school administrator and teacher like it typically is.”

Morgan Jarema and Charles Honey contributed to this story

Next week: How one high-poverty school is seeing promising results with its young readers.


Summary of Third-Grade Reading Law by Michigan Education Association

Kent District Library youth paraprofessional Austin Phillips offers resources to Oriole Park parent Virginia Gudino, in back, and Gisela Monroe, a bilingual office assistant
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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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