By Carol Stiffler

Between now and May, third graders have a huge task ahead of them: Learn to read proficiently in time to pass the M-STEP assessment test at the end of the school year. There’s no real reward, but the penalty is huge – third graders who cannot read proficiently will be flagged by the state and told to repeat third grade.

This new educational hurdle is the result of Michigan’s Read by Grade 3 law. The law was passed in 2016 and this year’s third graders are the first to fully experience it.

School districts knew this was coming. In preparation, they’ve assessed the reading level of students, have placed many on Individualized Reading Intervention Plans, utilized a Literacy Coach from the Intermediate School District, and built a team for each student that includes his or her parents.

“The Read by Grade 3 law is the responsibility of our elementary teaching team from preschool through third grade, not just when the students get to third grade,” said Ann McFadden, who teaches third grade reading and science at Tahquamenon Area Schools. “Reading instruction begins and is carried through these grade levels.”

McFadden has always had a love for literacy and keeps an intense focus on reading in her classroom. She has a library with more than 1,000 books in her classroom and regularly takes her students to the school library for more books. She also assigns them at-home reading, which is a key piece of the puzzle.

“All third graders are given a weekly reading log,” McFadden said. “It is part of their weekly homework to read at least 30 minutes a night, five nights a week. Research shows us that reading at this frequency determines success as a reader.”

According to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, students who are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out before graduating high school. The study found that 88 percent of high school dropouts were struggling to read in third grade.

Retaining a student, or holding them back, has its own pitfalls. Another study, this one done by Texas A&M, found that students who are held back in elementary school are nearly three times less likely to graduate high school.

A key flaw in the new requirement is that it fails to look at the whole student, said Tahquamenon Superintendent Stacy Price. Analyzing a student solely on reading gives an incomplete assessment of their skills.

Third graders who have a reading score on the M-STEP that is more than one year below grade level will be flagged for retention. The state will send a letter to the home of the student by June 1.

Parents who disagree with the ruling can request a good clause exemption. State guidelines indicate a good clause exemption could apply if the student has:

-An Individualized Education Program (IEP)

-A Section 504 Plan

-Limited English with less than three years of instruction in an English Language Learner program

-Received intensive reading intervention for 2 or more years, and was retained in kindergarten, 1st or 2nd grade

-Been enrolled in their current school for less than two years and there is evidence the child was not given an appropriate Individual Reading Improvement Plan.

The state will also consider a good clause exemption from parents who request their child not be held back.

Good clause exemptions can be filed by contacting the school their child attends. Exemptions must be filed within 30 days of receiving notification that the student may be retained. It will be up to the superintendent to review the request and make the final decision.

Three Lakes Academy Superintendent and Principal Rachel Bommarito said third grade is when students make the leap from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”. She has concerns about the strict law.

“The M-STEP is an incredibly difficult assessment for our students to navigate, and there are other assessments that give far more information to assist with their learning,” Bommarito said. “While I would love for every student to read by third grade, I do not believe that retaining students based on test scores and without parent and school input is the best solution.“