In 2016, then Gov. Rick Snyder signed the controversial “Read by Grade Three” bill into law. It's meant to improve the reading and writing abilities of third graders in Michigan, but if their scores don’t rise students could be held back.
As the law starts to take effect, educators are frustrated with how it aims to get test scores up.
Back to school
During the second day of class at Central Grade School near downtown Traverse City, teacher Sara Bageris had her third graders set some reading goals for the year.
Bageris has been an elementary school teacher for 20 years, and says third grade is important, specifically for developing reading and writing skills.
"They’ve been working on learning how to read for a long time, and now they’re making that shift in the third grade of reading to learn," Bageris says.
Bageris’ students set reading goals every year, but they are especially important now. The 2019-20 school year is when a big part of the “Read by Grade Three” law, also known as the Third Grade Reading Law, goes into effect.
To help improve reading, the state wants schools to identify children that have a reading "deficiency" by seeing if they score below their grade level on standardized tests.
Then, the state, the district and the student's family come up with an Individualized Reading Improvement Plan to catch the student up.
But Bageris says that process is tricky.
Under the law, the state measures student progress with the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (MSTEP.)
Bageris says she’s not teaching to the test, and uniform standards don’t always apply to individual students.
"Some kids are poor test takers, some kids wake up and have a bad day," Bageris says. "An MSTEP score doesn't always determine the student's true abilities."
Homework for school districts
Since the law passed in 2016, school districts have been getting ready for this year when students can start being held back for low test scores.
In the past three years, Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) hired reading coaches, trained staff and changed curriculums. But President of the Traverse City Education Association Allyson Culver says the district didn't get much help from the state for that work.
"Districts have for the most part been left to their own devices on what to do," Culver says.
Culver added that the state didn't give districts a concrete plan to meet the guidelines of the law.
"I would like to think that there were mandates and there was funding that came along with that, unfortunately there really isn't," Culver says.
Culver says holding students back is the most controversial part of the legislation.
"Through fear, through intimidation, through threats, I think we can safely say that good things aren’t going to come of that," Culver says.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer doesn't like the law either.
"I think it's destructive," Whitmer said in an interview with MLive. "That's why I'm going to do everything I can to support kids so that they're successful and work to get rid of that law."
Why did the law pass?
During his 2015 State of the State Address, Snyder was excited about helping kids read proficiently.
"We were at 63 percent [proficiency] in 2010, we're at 70 percent today, about a 10 percent improvement." Snyder said. "We can't be proud of that."
Educators in TCAPS do say the prep-work they put in has worked. Newly trained staff can identify students with reading problems early on and curriculum changes can keep them from falling behind.
Bill DiSessa, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, says the law isn’t perfect, but the state has provided some money and trained staff to help school districts.
“The law is the law, it’s here, until that changes we have to abide by (it) and implement (it) with fidelity and moving forward,” DiSessa says.
As for the threat of holding students back, DiSessa says only 2 to 5 percent of third-graders even run that risk.
In a statement to IPR, a spokeswoman for Whitmer said that could still have a negative impact on kids.
We need meaningful early intervention, as supported with Governor Whitmer’s budget, for example, to triple the number of literacy coaches to make sure teachers have the support they need to meet kids' needs. The goal is to support kids to make sure they are successful and not just penalize them. After years of disinvestment and inequality in educational conditions, it’s clear that the achievement gap is real and continues to inhibit students’ performance. However, these challenges are not the fault of educators or students, but rather the policymakers who have taken resources away from the classroom. Governor Whitmer’s budget, which increases education funding by $507 million, is the largest investment in the classroom in a generation. Her budget allocates funding on a weighted foundation allowance because we know that different students require different resources to teach, which is why Governor Whitmer increased funding for special education and at-risk students. This will allow us to adequately fund our students, and provides schools with a real chance to boost educational outcomes and close the achievement gap.
But as the state's fiscal year ends, Whitmer is deadlocked over the budget with the Republican-led legislature. This story was featured on Points North. You can find the full episode here.