News Story

Liberal Nonprofit News Site Paints Unfair Picture Of Reading Retention Law

ProPublica fails to mention specific exemptions to being held back

The liberal nonprofit news site ProPublica did a story about a Michigan law that restricts school districts from advancing third graders to grade four if they have not learned to read.

The June 28 report cited the Benton Harbor school district and claimed, “The Michigan legislature had chosen this year, of all years, to enforce a strict new literacy law: Any third grader who could not read proficiently by May could flunk and be held back.”

The assertion that “any third grader” could be held back is not a fair representation of the law. There are numerous exceptions to the Read By Grade Three retention law that make it exceedingly unlikely that any child will be held back.

These include exemptions for special education students; students who do not speak English as a first language; children for whom previous attempts to intervene have been made; and recently transferred students who did not receive proper instruction from their previous school. Parents can also ask for an exemption for their child, which district superintendents are authorized to grant.

The state law is clear about the exceptions:

The pupil is a student with an individualized education program or with a section 504 plan and the pupil’s individualized education program team or section 504 coordinator, as applicable, makes the decision to exempt the pupil from the requirements of subsection (5)(a) based upon the team’s or coordinator’s knowledge of the pupil.

(b) The pupil is a limited English proficient student who has had less than 3 years of instruction in an English language learner program.

(c) The pupil has received intensive reading intervention for 2 or more years but still demonstrates a reading deficiency and was previously retained in kindergarten, grade 1, grade 2, or grade 3.

(d) The pupil has been continuously enrolled in his or her current school district or public school academy for less than 2 years and there is evidence that the pupil was not provided with an appropriate individual reading improvement plan under subsection (2)(b) by the school district or public school academy in which the pupil was previously enrolled.

(e) The pupil’s parent or legal guardian has requested a good cause exemption within the time period provided under subsection (10)(d) and the superintendent or chief administrator, or his or her designee, determines that the good cause exemption is in the best interests of the pupil.

ProPublica reporter Annie Waldman claimed in an email to have covered the exceptions in her story.

Waldman highlighted the word “could” in the phrase “could flunk and be held back.”

Waldman also said this paragraph in her story mentioned the exceptions: “Working with Thompson and Na’Kiyrah’s elementary school principal, Taylor was able to find a temporary reprieve for her daughter: Na’Kiyrah will enroll in summer school, which has been extended to eight weeks this year and started in late June. At the end of the program, Na’Kiyrah will be reassessed, and if she passes, she will be able to move to the fourth grade with her brother.”

Waldman said the story added, “Parents whose children were learning virtually could opt out of testing and therefore the retention requirement.” However, the Michigan Department of Education states that is not accurate. Even though there are numerous exemptions to being retained, learning virtually is not one of them, according to Martin Ackley, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education.

According to the Michigan Department of Education, the law to retain third graders who could not read was in effect in the 2020-21 school year.

Benton Harbor’s two elementary schools retained a total of four students in 2020-21. The state of Michigan doesn’t breakdown the data on students retained by class. So it is unclear what grade or grades the four retained students were in. And Benton Harbor Area Schools Superintendent Andrae Townsel stated that no students have been held back within his district due to the law.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.