Government and Higher Education

More third-graders will be held back for reading, study says

Education and policy officials call state law that will start in 2020 'punitive.'

October 19, 2018
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New reading standards will force many Michigan children to retake the third grade, especially children of color, according to a recent study.

Starting in 2020, third-graders who can’t read will be held back under the “Read by Grade Three” law. The law was passed in 2016 because many children are unable to read by the third grade, said Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Public Policy, the organization that conducted the study.

The results of the state’s 2016 standardized testing showed more than half of third-graders were not proficient in English.

But schools are not receiving funding promised to ensure students acquire the education needed to meet these new standards, said Jacobs, whose organization had supported the legislation if students received the support they needed to pass the standards.

Holding back third-graders has cascading effects, leading to fewer students graduating high school, she said.

The state has invested some resources in helping students meet the standards.

Approximately $30 million in state funds will go to public schools to hire reading coaches, said Jennifer Smith, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards. That helps, but more money is needed to get a reading coach in every school building, she said.

“The ‘Read by Grade Three’ law, unfortunately, is punitive,” Jacobs said. “As opposed to creating an opportunity to address the overall issues affecting kids, particularly kids of color, and their ability to read, this law punishes them.”

Children of color and students from low-income families are more likely to struggle with literacy, according to the league. It found that eight of every 10 African-American students and two-thirds of Latino students are not proficient in English by the end of the third grade.

The results of the state’s 2016 standardized testing found that 55 percent of third-graders were not proficient in English.

Children living in poverty are twice as likely to not read by the third grade, the study said.

“We already knew, even before this law was passed, that more kids of color are less likely to be reading by third grade,” Jacobs said. “We have a lot of research that shows that kids that are retained tend to have low self-esteem and drop out of high school.”

The league supported the legislation because the promised educational funding would have addressed these issues, Jacobs said. The Association of School Boards also supported the bill, but one of its recommendations was not included in the law.

An option to allow teachers to advance a student despite reading scores was left out of the final bill, Smith wrote in an email.

Retention is counterproductive, said Tim Ready, director of the Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations at Western Michigan University.

Economic insecurity has a detrimental effect on academic performance that cannot be pushed back by schools alone, Ready said. Almost 60 percent of African-American children and nearly a quarter of Caucasian children in Kalamazoo would be retained under the new laws, Ready said.

To improve third-grade reading for children of color or those in low-income communities, the league recommends increasing access to high-quality early childhood education and care programs, early identification systems, and providing more intensive reading support and instruction in the early grades.

Another league study reports that 42 percent of African-American children, 30 percent of Latino children, 26 percent of biracial children and 15 percent of Caucasian children live in poverty.

“It’s one thing to look at test scores, but we need to take a holistic look at the root causes of these students’ problems,” Jacobs said. “There is a direct link between poverty and academic achievement.”

Improved housing, access to healthy food and safe spaces reduce the effects of poverty on children, Jacobs said.

The “Read by Grade Three” law is part of a larger piece of legislation, designed to improve Michigan’s overall public education system. Two sponsors of the bill, Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Rep. Daniela Garcia, R-Holland, did not respond to requests for comment.

“Ideally, we would have the resources to help all kids read by third grade without using a punitive lens,” Jacobs said. “If we really want kids to read and succeed and achieve, we have to address the root causes of why they are not and address education from a holistic standpoint.”

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