A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

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Michigan Schools Promoting Large Number Of Students Who Cannot Read

New bill attempts to ensure that students passed to fourth grade be proficient in reading

More than half of the third graders at Three Lakes Academy in the Upper Peninsula failed to score proficient on the state reading test in 2010-2011.

But none of the school's 14 third-graders were held back.

At Howell Public Schools, none of the 35 third-graders who didn't rate proficient at reading were held back.

However, a proposed bill would require those students show they are proficient at reading before advancing to fourth grade.

House Bill 5111 would hold back third grade students who were not proficient in reading on the state assessment. The bill grants exemptions for students with a disability or those with a limited proficiency with the English language.

Between 52,000 and 60,500 Michigan students were held back in all grades from 2007-08 to 2010-11, the latest years data is available.

Holding students back more often should be considered because it sends a message to school districts how important reading is, said Audrey Spalding, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The proposal before the Legislature could eventually lead to a better system where students are not grouped by age, but by proficiency, and classrooms would have a mix of ages, she said.

"You are not doing the kid any favors if they are not reading and you keep passing them up through the school," Spalding said. "You are certainly penalizing a student then because you are setting them up to fail."

According to a Harvard study14 states and Washington, D.C., have policies that require students who don't have basic reading proficiency at the end of third grade be held back. The study looked at Florida's retention of third-graders starting in 2002 and found that there were "substantial positive effects" on reading and math achievement in the short run. The study couldn't prove the practice was beneficial in the long run.

Some school administrators are against the proposal.

"You see numbers on a piece of paper and I see genuine faces, every day, affected by influences outside of their control," said Sue Pann, administrator at Three Lakes Academy, in an email. "We are lucky if half of our students have parents who get up with them in the morning, feed them, and get them off to school. … What happens now, is we meet with parents after collecting hard data and plan a course of action.  Sometimes, it leads to retention, sometimes not. Often the family just moves to another school district and continues the cycle."

Howell Public Schools Superintendent Ron Wilson said it is uncommon for his district to hold back a student who is struggling in one area. He said he didn't like that the bill took the parents out of the decision to hold their children back.

"To have legislation that doesn't give parents the choice, I think is somewhat reckless," Wilson said. "I think the parents and the teachers are the ones best qualified to make that decision. To mandate it …. and basing it on a test, it's just not something I would have brought forward."

Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, said there were 33,600 students who were "partially proficient" or "not proficient" on the state reading test, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

He said if Michigan had a three-year phase in and if there were the same type of positive results as those that took place in Florida, the Great Lakes Education Project thinks that there would be 17,000 non-proficient third grade readers and half of those would qualify for exemptions.

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