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Michigan’s New ‘Read by Grade 3’ Law: A Guide for Parents

The new school year is finally here. Parents helping their younger children transition into the regular routine of daily school attendance will find a new focus on reading as their schools and their teachers prepare students for Michigan’s new law requiring demonstrated reading competency to move from the third to fourth grade.

In Spring 2020, third grade students will take the state’s M-STEP assessment as before, but all eyes will be on their reading scores. The M-STEP English Language Arts test will be used to determine whether students will be able to move onto the fourth grade or not. There are a number of conditions beyond the test score to be considered before a student is retained in third grade. All are new and should be understood by parents who will want to know all their options if their child’s reading score is low enough to trigger possible retention under Michigan’s “Read by Grade 3” law.

Where does this new retention requirement come from?

In the fall of 2016, the state legislature passed Public Act 306, also known as Michigan’s “Read by Grade 3” law. The law’s authors identify third grade as a critical point in a child’s educational career, marking the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”. They maintain a child who cannot read well by the end of the third grade will struggle in future years to meet proficiency levels if their reading skills are insufficient to allow their understanding of core concepts in all subject areas. These concerns are borne out in student and school performance data, particularly for students of color and those who are economically disadvantaged.

While much of the law lays out foundational strategies to improve reading proficiency, its most controversial aspect is the retention of students who are unable to meet minimum state reading expectations as measured by their performance on the M-STEP third-grade reading assessment. This is not unique to Michigan. As of 2018, twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia had retention policies on the books.

What are the specific requirements for retention?

Beginning with third graders in 2019-20, a student will not be able to move onto fourth grade unless any one of the following occur:

  1. The student attains a minimum score of at least 1253 on the third grade English Language Arts portion of M-STEP. M-STEP scores range from 1203 to 1357. To learn more about the M-STEP, be sure to check out this primer.
  2. The student demonstrates reading proficiency through a state-approved alternative assessment.
  3. The student demonstrates reading proficiency through a classroom student portfolio.

No later than June 1st, or 14 days after M-STEP assessment results are made available (whichever is earlier) each year, a letter must be sent to each household in which a student’s scores fall below the minimum threshold.

Students who demonstrate proficiency on the other subjects of the M-STEP, along with mastery of social studies and science through their coursework, would still be eligible to move onto grade four.

For those students retained in grade three, schools and districts must provide additional supports, interventions and resources in the subsequent school year. A student who is retained in grade three as a result of this law cannot be retained at that same grade level again for failure to meet adequate reading standards.

Is it possible for a student to be exempt from the retention requirement?

There are several “good cause” exemptions from retention. A student may be granted a “good cause” exemption under any one of the following conditions:

  1. The student has an individualized education program (IEP) or Section 504 plan, and is granted an exemption by the school.
  2. The student is an English Learner with fewer than three years of English language instruction.
  3. The student was previously retained in kindergarten, grade one, grade two or grade three, and had previously received intensive reading intervention for at least two years prior.
  4. The student had been enrolled in their current school or district for less than two years, but was not provided an adequate individual reading improvement plan.
  5. The superintendent grants a good cause exemption, after being successfully petitioned by a parent or legal guardian. 

What is the process for a parent to petition for a “good cause” exemption?

Within 30 days of receiving an official M-STEP notification letter, a parent or legal guardian may choose to seek out a “good cause” exemption for their child. To do so, the parent or legal guardian must first reach out to their child’s teacher, who then passes along their recommendation to the district superintendent.

The superintendent’s decision is final, and must be communicated to the family at least 30 days before the beginning of the upcoming school year.

How many students may potentially be retained under the new law?

While we won’t know until Spring 2020 the number of students potentially retained within Kent ISD, it is possible to look back at the last five years of M-STEP data to get a rough approximation.

Looking at M-STEP data from 2014-15 through 2018-19, we estimate about 2-3 percent of third-grade students may be subject to retention. In 2018-19, this accounts for roughly 170 students in Kent ISD’s 20 traditional school districts. To note, these figures only represent the ceiling, as it doesn’t account for any exemptions from the law.

In terms of who may be potentially retained, our analysis finds these students will likely be disproportionately low-income and students of color. For example, while low-income students make up about half of all third graders in Kent ISD’s traditional school districts, they may make up about 80 percent of all retentions. Likewise, while students of color only account for about 40 percent of students, they could easily comprise up to 75 percent of all retained students.

The supports and strategies for improved achievement contained in the law — and additional state and federal funding targeted for “at-risk” students — are intended to provide additional services for these groups. Decades of data demonstrate economically disadvantaged students do not respond or perform as well on standardized tests. Their higher-income peers, on the other hand, enjoy greater financial security and can provide a broader range of educational experiences and support, if necessary.

Roughly 2-3 percent of Kent ISD area third grade students may be subject to retention under new “Read by Grade 3” Law

Data for Kent ISD include only LEA districts. MDE’s May 2019 retention guidance requires students with a scale score of 1252 or lower on the grade 3 M-STEP in ELA be subject to retention, barring any ‘good cause’ exemptions. Source: MDE, M-STEP English Language Arts 2018-19

Low-Income students and students of color may be disproportionately impacted by Michigan’s “Read by Grade 3” Law…

Data for Kent ISD include only LEA districts. MDE’s May 2019 retention guidance requires students with a scale score of 1252 or lower on the grade 3 M-STEP in ELA be subject to retention, barring any ‘good cause’ exemptions. Source: MDE, M-STEP English Language Arts 2018-19

Does retention actually work as a strategy?

Proponents of retention argue that without this law, schools in Michigan will continue to pass along far too many unprepared students. Those who oppose retention believe it does more harm than good, citing data demonstrating retention policies put students at greater risk for dropping out of high school.

A long-term study of Florida’s reading and retention law — first passed in the early 2000s — provides some important insight. Harvard University researchers concluded students retained under Florida’s reading law exhibited some short-term learning gains but found those benefits tend to fade over time, and are statistically insignificant after six years.

Where do we go from here?

Educators throughout West Michigan and statewide were preparing for this new law well before its passage, working to ensure students have the tools they need to be successful in literacy. This has ranged from literacy coaching, professional development for teachers and other innovative student support strategies. These have been enhanced by new state and regional efforts like the Reading Now Network, General Education Leadership Network, Michigan Education Corps and several others.

Educators and university researchers alike are sure to focus on student performance under the new law to determine if retention, or additional student support and literacy coaching for students and teachers alike, will achieve higher proficiency levels.

If you have further questions, please contact your student’s teachers and building principal to learn what they plan to do to provide support for your child and what you can do to better help your child read.

Community partners Kent County District Library and the Grand Rapids Public Library worked with local schools and have joined forces to offer after-school assistance for you and your child under their new “Mission Read” program.

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