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3 is Not the Charm for Michigan Third Grade Education Reading Law

Any competent teacher knows that whatever elementary school grade being taught, (s)he will have at least that many reading levels. So, a third grade teacher will likely have no less than four reading levels that will include non-readers, emerging readers, remedial readers, grade level readers, and accelerated readers.

Now the Michigan Legislature in its misguided efforts to improve State test score and almost total lack of expertise or experience concerning the way children learn has passed a law essentially stating that any child who is not reading at a 3rd grade proficiency level by the end of the 3rd grade may not pass to the next grade, with a few exceptions requiring waivers.

The messages the state legislature sent to eight and nine year old children are: You’re not good enough or smart enough to move on to the next grade. We are sending your friends and class mates ahead, and you will have to stay here until you learn to read as well as we say you should, however long that may take.

Yes, we do have to be concerned that Michigan students are at the bottom on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, the Detroit Free Press reported that nearly 70% of Michigan’s 4th graders from throughout the state were unable to score as proficient in reading literacy.

Yet, at the same time, research points out that children who are retained are most likely to drop out of school altogether at a later date. In my experience as an educator for more than 50 years, children who are retained form negative feelings about their self-worth well into their adult years, especially males who are most often held back.

Social promotion is also not helpful, as supporters of the bill point out. So what are we to do?

For starters, the Michigan legislature has not yet returned funding to its pre Great Recession levels. How are schools supposed to provide early intervention without the money to pay for it?

Also, let’s bring in the neurologists and other experts to testify about learning differences between children. For example, boys are more likely to read at a later age than girls. How is it decided that age 9 is the cut-off date for achieving literacy? Is it because of the arbitrary transition from primary level to elementary grades, as determined by textbook publishers and for the convenience of school administration?

While we are at it, the Michigan State Board of Education unanimously opposed the bill, saying that retention is a judgment not made lightly, and to be determined between educators and parents – not legislators! By the way, parents and educators do not even figure into the law. Retention is based completely on test scores.

Finally, as I have said and written so often over the years, unless and until we determine why a child has not learned to read in the first place, there is no guarantee that another year (or two, or three) will find that child any further ahead than the day he or she was held back.

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