To boost 3rd-grade reading, Michigan may hold back more kids

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Rick Snyder and lawmakers are making third-graders’ ability to read a significant focus this year, emphasizing still-evolving plans to improve kids’ literacy long before they’re 8 or 9 years old.

But it remains unclear how far policymakers will go to address those who still aren’t reading well enough by the end of third grade.

Will they push for a law requiring that the students be held back a grade?

Legislation that would force pupils who aren’t proficient in a third-grade reading test to repeat the grade stalled in the Republican-led Legislature last year.

Snyder has sought to downplay the bill and has deferred to his Feb. 11 budget proposal, when he’s expected to propose additional or more targeted state spending on prenatal-to-third-grade programs. Under the Republican governor, for example, the state has set aside $130 million more a year to help more low-income kids attend preschool — a bid to improve their school readiness.

Snyder also plans legislation that would create a commission outside government to propose recommendations for ways to boost third-grade reading scores. He appears open, however, to state-required intervention when kids reach third grade and do poorly on Michigan’s standardized reading test.

“That should be something that should be looked at if there isn’t success going on or later in on the process. When you wait until third grade, it’s too late in many respects,” he said in a recent interview.

Third grade is considered a key benchmark because it’s the last year students learn to read before transitioning to reading to learn. Students who don’t read proficiently in third grade are four times more likely not to graduate high school than proficient readers, according to the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Snyder wants to “dramatically” increase the number of students deemed proficient in third-grade reading. Seventy percent were proficient last school year, up 10 percentage points from five years before.

Students actually have been taking the third-grade reading test at the start of fourth grade, which will change to spring of third grade this May when the state replaces the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) with the new Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP).

Some experts question if holding students back is a short-term fix that fades over time and is damaging to their self-esteem, ultimately doing more harm than good. Just 16 states require the “retention” of third-graders who don’t meet grade-level expectations in reading, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Yet proponents of the yet-to-be-reintroduced legislation say this time around they will do a better job stressing that holding back a third-grader is a last resort. The revamped bill also would likely affect far fewer of the state’s 105,000 tested third-graders than initially proposed under the measure debated last session.

Instead of roughly 31,000, or 30 percent, being held back, it likely would be around 2,600, or 2.5 percent, of third-graders, said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a school-choice advocacy group.

About 21,000 third-graders deemed partially proficient wouldn’t be held back but instead get special reading help.

Of the 10,500 non-proficient third-graders, half would likely become proficient by the time the law took effect in a few years as schools bolstered their efforts with younger children, Naeyaert said. Another 2.5 percent would still move to fourth grade by qualifying for various “good cause” exemptions — showing reading proficiency through an alternative test, for instance, or having a learning disability or limited English skills.

“The focus should be on the screening, the early intervention for the three, four years kids are in school. Retention is a last resort and it would be rarely used but serves as an important piece of this package because it motivates districts and parents,” said Naeyaert, who estimated that 1 percent of current third-graders are held back every year.

Republican Rep. Amanda Price of Ottawa County’s Park Township, who sponsored the bill in 2013, said she’s encouraged by Snyder’s attention on reading proficiency. She’s chairwoman of the House Education Committee this term, a potential boost for the measure’s chances.

One legislator with some reservations is House Speaker Kevin Cotter, who said the previous legislation took a “hard line.”

“I’ve always struggled with that (retention) concept. I like the idea … of putting the resources in on the front end,” said the Mount Pleasant Republican.

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