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Should 3rd graders who can't read well be held back

4:55 PM, Dec 15, 2013   |    comments
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(Laurie Higgins/Detroit Free Press) - If Michigan lawmakers follow Florida's lead by holding back third-graders with poor reading skills, the state would join a fast-growing movement across the country. But can Michigan replicate Florida, where the 10-year-old policy has resulted in short-term gains?

The answer, if lawmakers pass two contentious bills in the House, may depend on how much money and resources the state invests in intervention programs designed to identify and help struggling readers before they get to third grade.

¦PDF:Read House Bill No. 5111

¦PDF:Read House Bill No. 5144

"It's very important that your money is where your mouth is," said Laurie Lee, deputy director of Just Read, Florida!, an office within the Florida Department of Education created when the state's third-grade retention law was enacted. The Florida Legislature allocated $130 million this school year for reading instruction programs, including interventions for struggling readers.

If Michigan enacts similar legislation, it would join 15 states and the District of Columbia, which have retention policies for students who fail third-grade reading exams. Michigan's legislation, like Florida's law, would allow exemptions for students whose disabilities make taking the exam inappropriate, non-English-speaking students who've received fewer than two years of instruction in English, and students who can demonstrate their reading proficiency on an alternative standardized exam or through a portfolio of their work. Retained students would have to undergo intensive intervention. Students could be retained for a maximum of two years.

Thousands of Michigan students could be affected, though the exact number is unclear, given the exemptions and that Michigan is switching to a new exam. In 2012, about a third of the students who took the MEAP reading test - 36,000 students - failed, but fewer than 1% were retained.

Florida, which has had a third-grade reading retention policy the longest, began its push to end social promotion after test results during the 2000-01 school year found that 29% of students performed at Level 1, the lowest of five levels of achievement. In Florida, Levels 3-5 constitute passing. In 2002-03, the year Florida's retention law took effect, 23% of students scored at the lowest level and 14% of third-graders were held back.

Both statistics have declined since then. In 2011-12, 18% of Florida third-graders scored at the bottom level and 8% of third-graders were held back. The Education Commission of the States in 2012 published a review of research on Florida's program, including a study that found students who were retained outperformed similar students who were simply passed on.

But how lasting the gains are is unclear. A Brookings Institution research brief in 2012 said the short-term improvements in achievement "diminish over time and become statistically insignificant by the time retained students reach the seventh grade." Still, Martin West, who wrote the brief, concluded that retention policies may be beneficial if they include appropriate interventions for students who are held back.

Impact on students

And that's where the biggest opposition to the legislation lies. Many in the school community have said it focuses too much on retention and not enough on intervention, despite a companion bill that would require the Michigan Department of Education to recommend reading intervention programs and local school districts to identify struggling readers, inform their parents and intervene with the kids.

"It's a terrible policy," said Susan Neuman, education professor at the University of Michigan, an early literacy expert and a former U.S. assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education under President George W. Bush. "We're going to blame the parent, blame the kid and never look at the system."

Advocates, though, said it's crucial that kids who can't read not get passed on to the fourth grade, a practice they said will set them up for continued failure. They see retention as a last resort.

The bills were up for a vote early this month, but House leadership held back to address questions. They are likely to be taken up in the new year.

"The international consensus is that third-grade reading proficiency is the single most critical indicator of academic success in public education," said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project. "To have one-third of our third-graders non-proficient is the reason we have such low performance throughout the rest of the K-12 experience."

Cortney Ketchem of Wayland, a parent with a first-grader and a preschooler, said the legislation is an important step. She said that if struggling readers continue to fall behind when they're passed on, it could slow class lessons for all students.

"I'm passionate about raising the standards for learning, versus just settling," Ketchem said. "There needs to be accountability, even for these young kids."

Jodi DeMay of Rochester Hills, whose kindergarten-age daughter has been struggling academically, worries about the impact the proposed law would have on her daughter.

"This gives me a lot of anxiety," DeMay said. "I want her to succeed the best way that she can and how quickly she can. And I'm not going to force her to be something she can't be at this point. That would stress her out."

Why 3rd grade matters

The state Education Department is neutral on the bills. State Superintendent Mike Flanagan is opposed, though. He said that third-grade reading proficiency is a top goal of the department and State Board of Education.

But "I think whether a student is retained in third grade or not should be a decision made at the local level, based on each child's individual situation with consideration of the child's parents and teachers," he said.

Emily Workman, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said 33 states have policies on the books that require identification of struggling readers in the early grades, while 30 states have policies requiring specific interventions for struggling readers - from assigning a reading teacher to provide extra support to summer school programs.

Many of the states that have retention laws modeled them after Florida's law.

"A lot of these are pretty new," Workman said, adding, "2012 was a big year for this."

Few would disagree that the ability to read by the end of the third grade is essential for success in school. The end of third grade is crucial, experts said, because that's the point where kids go from learning to read to reading to learn.

Workman said research shows students who are behind in third grade will tend to stay behind and are more likely to drop out. "It becomes this kind of snowball effect following third grade," she said. But she said there's an equal amount of research on the other side that suggests holding a child back can be detrimental.

"We don't advocate for or against either, but what we do stress is so important is that waiting until a student gets to third grade and trying to intervene ... and not having any plans for providing them with the support they need, makes the retention policy ineffective."

The best policies, she said, are where states require schools to intervene in kindergarten with intensive help for struggling readers.

A key part of Florida's policy is a requirement that students who are held back be exposed to a different curriculum.

How that looks varies by district. Florida doesn't mandate schools adopt a specific curriculum, though the state has developed a list of approved programs from which local districts can choose. One thing districts must do is provide summer reading camps for struggling readers.

"It's a totally different experience," Lee said. "That's what makes Florida far more effective with these kids. We ratchet up the intervention. We make sure that what they experience the second time in third grade is not the same as what they went through the first time."

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