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Some thoughts on the 3rd grade reading bill

A bill intended to promote comprehensive reading intervention services has generated a lot of controversy lately, because of its origins in last session's infamous "third grade flunking" bill. But the proposal is very different this time around, and I wanted to offer some insight into what we at MIPFS have been doing on this issue. As of this writing, we are reserving judgement on the bill but have been working with lawmakers to improve it.

House education committee chair Rep. Amanda Price (R-Park Twp) sponsored both this bill (HB 4822) and the one from last session. But what a difference a couple of years can make. Unlike the first bill, which did nothing but require that children who did not test proficient at the end of 3rd grade be retained, this bill is the outgrowth of a summer bipartisan workgroup that examined the question of how to help children who were having trouble reading in the elementary years. As a result, the bulk of the bill identifies state and local district responsibilities to identify and implement diagnostic assessments and reading intervention programs for students, as well as literacy coach programs to support classroom teachers who are working with children experiencing reading problems. The bill has bipartisan support.

The current version of HB 4822 does still require retaining students in third grade, at least for the reading curriculum, if they are more than a full grade behind in reading at the end of third grade. The retention provisions are by far the most controversial part of the bill. Rep. Price and other sponsors have been unwilling to remove these provisions, though there are now enough alternatives and exceptions that the requirement has been significantly softened. For instance, students can show proficiency (or near proficiency) on the state test, another approved reading test used locally, or by a portfolio of student work. If a child is "retained," they can still advance to a 4th grade classroom and do 4th grade work in other subjects. Moreover, there are options for "good cause exceptions" including students receiving special education services, English language learners, and other special circumstances.

One of our central concerns at MIPFS is the financial stress on districts, and reading intervention programs have frequently been on the chopping block as budget cuts are made. There is no question that early literacy is important, and that early intervention with children experiencing reading problems can be essential to heading off more serious issues later. In fact, a recent suit by the ACLU over emergency management in Highland Park schools focused on the failure of the district, and its state appointed manager, to ensure all children could read at a reasonable level. The issue of early literacy is real, especially in districts struggling with high levels of poverty.

The current version of HB 4822 is the first piece of legislation we've seen in quite a while that focuses on providing tools to help schools improve the education they offer rather than simply punishing them for low test scores. For that reason alone, we thought it was important to engage constructively on this bill. Rep. Price has been extremely open to changes, and has accepted new language which dramatically improved the bill. We have been participating in that process, which is ongoing, to make the legislation better as it heads to the House floor.

Moreover, front-line reading teachers we have consulted say that the proposals for diagnostic tools, intervention systems, and professional support actually make sense and can do considerable good if implemented with care and sufficient resources. This is why we have been supportive of the bulk of the bill, which would require these services be made available to all students everywhere - but only as long as significant resources are made available to help districts implement the programs thoroughly. We are pleased that other organizations which support strong local public education, including the Michigan League for Public Policy and the Michigan Education Association, have taken similar positions.

We remain concerned that even the much-softened grade retention provisions will end up harming children rather than helping them. While some education reform groups want retention kept as an "incentive" (for whom, is not clear), other lawmakers see it as a way of preventing children who struggle with reading from being pushed along through school with no solutions offered. But the choice isn't between holding kids back and having high school graduates who can barely read.

MIPFS prefers to think of the issue differently: that all children who have difficulty reading should be offered the help that they need, as early as possible, and for as long as they need it. Rather than retaining any child at 3rd grade, we believe that it makes more sense to require local districts to intensify intervention services at that point (which, in fact, the bill calls for) and to re-test children for learning disabilities which may have been missed at younger ages.

No child should get lost in the cracks of our education system, and we should never give up on any child. With some important changes and appropriate funding, we believe this legislation could give us a good start in fulfilling this promise.

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