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Michigan governor to sign controversial education bill

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is set to sign a controversial bill Thursday that restricts the promotion of reading-deficient students to the fourth grade.

Michigan will join at least 16 other states that have passed legislation requiring third-graders to repeat the grade if they don’t meet reading expectations, according to data compiled by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Research by the Brookings Institution, however, indicates that these policies offer no long-term benefits for the affected students and come with high price tags.

“Several studies find that retention is associated with short-term improvements in standardized test scores, but these seem to fade within several years,” Brian A. Jacob, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, wrote on the Brookings website. “And none of these ‘new generation’ studies indicates any positive effects on high school completion.”

The Michigan bill's sponsor, state Rep. Amanda Price (R-Ottawa County), told AMI Newswire that the legislation emphasizes reading interventions in kindergarten through third grades. This assures that children with reading problems will get coaching and individualized instruction to pass the state’s assessment tests, Price said, adding that retention would only be used as a last resort.

“My hope with this bill is that there is a concerted focus on that core skill of reading throughout the elementary grades,” she said, adding: “In the legislature, there are pieces of legislation that grab at your heart, and this one has.”

Prior to the bill’s approval by the state legislature last month, opponents expressed concerns about possible damage to children’s self-esteem as a result of being held back. But Price emphasized that efforts to help children overcome reading problems would help many students feel the satisfaction that comes from mastering a subject.

“A child who can’t read suffers a great amount of self-esteem issues,” she said.

The Brookings report looked at students who scored just below the cutoff score to avoid retention vs. those who were promoted but barely cleared the threshold.

“While these studies find that retention per se is not nearly as harmful as prior research suggests, they also do not find significant and lasting benefits,” Jacob wrote.

He noted that in Florida after the state adopted a retention policy for third-graders in 2002, the students who were held back were no better off academically in middle school than their peers who were promoted.

Jacob also expressed concerns about the cost of retention policies since in other states the policy often resulted in 20 percent of third-graders being held back. In Michigan, the policy could have even greater effects because this year only 46 percent of third-graders were deemed proficient or better in English language arts, based on results of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP.

Because the state spends more than $10,000 per pupil annually, holding back nearly 40,000 children annually translates into a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, Jacob said.

“Mandatory retention is an extremely expensive way to help struggling readers,” he said.

But Price said the focus of the bill would be not about retaining students but about help and reading interventions for children in grades K through 3, with the retention provision not kicking in until the 2019-20 school year. The interventions include multiple diagnostic assessments of children in grades K through 3, supplemental instruction through literacy coaching and improved professional development for teachers.

The bill would also allow parents to pursue a “good-cause exemption” allowing their children to be promoted to the fourth grade even if assessments showed they were below-par readers. In addition, the pupil could demonstrate a grade 3 reading proficiency through a pupil portfolio of work samples, the bill says.

Supporters of the bill said that reading proficiency at the third-grade level is the key to future academic success for all students. And the “alarming” performance of young Michigan students on standardized tests indicated the need for a strong emphasis on reading skills in the early grades, Price said.

“For some reason, it seems like we took our feet off the pedal on reading,” she said.