Literacy consultant Fatina Chapman works with students through the McGraw-Hill reading program  Sept. 12 at Graebner Elementary School in Sterling Heights.

Literacy consultant Fatina Chapman works with students through the McGraw-Hill reading program Sept. 12 at Graebner Elementary School in Sterling Heights.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Ready or not, here comes ‘Read by Grade Three’

Parents, psychologists, reading teachers talk about what new law will mean for kids

By: Jonathan Shead, Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published September 25, 2019

 May Manna-Denha, a kindergarten through third grade literacy coach, and Bethany Tabacchi, a literacy coach for the MISD, were part of the training at the MISD in Clinton Township.

May Manna-Denha, a kindergarten through third grade literacy coach, and Bethany Tabacchi, a literacy coach for the MISD, were part of the training at the MISD in Clinton Township.

Photo by Mark Einhaus, of Media Hero

 Karen Langlands, left, from Chippewa Valley Schools, and Jill Erfourth, from Utica Community Schools, lead a teacher training session through the Macomb Intermediate School District in June.

Karen Langlands, left, from Chippewa Valley Schools, and Jill Erfourth, from Utica Community Schools, lead a teacher training session through the Macomb Intermediate School District in June.

Photo by Mark Einhaus, of Media Hero

METRO DETROIT — The stakes for Michigan’s third grade students are high this school year as the retention portion of the state’s “Read by Grade Three” law takes effect in May 2020 after this year’s statewide assessments.


‘It would be devastating to her if she tripped up on the standardized test’
For Kate Fraser and her family, the journey has been riddled with stress.

Fraser, who has children in third and first grades in the Rochester Community Schools district, said many children have not fully connected the dots on reading until about age 7 or 8, which is exactly when it connected for her oldest daughter.

“I want my kids to be proficient, capable of reading and literate … but society is putting an unreasonable amount of stress and pressure on these kids, and the third grade reading law is making it worse,” she said.

According to the law, third grade students who are one full reading level below grade three, as designated by a score of 1252 or lower on the English language arts portion of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, will be flagged for retention to repeat third grade the following year.

Students who score between 1253 and 1271 will not be flagged for retention, but will be recommended to receive additional intervention support and resources.

Fraser’s daughter has been seeing a reading specialist since first grade and has worked hard to be able to read at her grade level this year in third grade. However, she said, the process has been filled with challenges for her daughter.

“She feels that every time we sit down to read she is being evaluated and challenged (by) the law, so she is never, ever going to sit down and read a book on her own for pleasure, because she has now equated reading to this law,” Fraser said. “It has definitely made her lose confidence because of the anxiety … and it would be devastating to her if she tripped up on the standardized test, because again, not everyone does well on standardized testing.”

Fraser argued that testing in third grade — with the potential to be held back if deemed not proficient — is just too early. While she thinks it’s critically important that children be literate, she is against the retention portion of the law.

“That is a huge failure, in my opinion, because it’s black or white, and nothing with kids is black or white,” she said.

    
‘I’m stuck. I do what I’m paid to do.’
Michele Hojnacki has been a third grade teacher for 26 years in Oakland County. Two years of preparations for the retention portion rollout hasn’t reduced the pressure she feels or the volume of work she has to do leading up to the M-STEP.

“For (teachers), it has meant in the last two years a lot of record keeping about what we’re doing and a lot of anxiety for parents knowing this is coming up,” she said. “It requires us to do more testing, which is time away from instruction, which is difficult for me, because if we want reading growth, I need to be instructing. All of the record keeping, that is time that could be spent planning for the individual needs of each child.”  

Starting in 2017, school districts were required to pick out an assessment system created by the Michigan Department of Education to diagnose, assess and track the reading levels of each student. Testing is required at least three times per year, with the initial test given within the first 30 days of school.

“The state as a whole, but also MDE and schools, have been working really hard to get those high-quality instructional practices in classrooms every day, ensuring there’s strong parent-school partnerships and that we’re having good conversations about what our students need,” said Lisa Brown, an early literacy coaching consultant with the MDE. “(We’re trying) to do everything in everyone’s power to make sure there’s less students being flagged for possible retention.”

Students flagged for retention are not automatically retained. Superintendents can exercise a “good cause” exemption if they believe the student should not be retained.

There are five ways a student could be granted a good cause exemption:

• Coordinators for a student with an individual education plan or a disability can request an exemption for the student.

• An English language learner with less than three years of instruction in English may be granted an exemption.

• A student may be eligible for an exemption if he or she has received intensive reading intervention for two years and was previously retained.

• A student who has been in the school district for less than two years may be exempted.

• A parent can request an exemption within 30 days of being notified of possible retention.

The Center for Educational Performance and Information is required to notify parents if their student is flagged for retention no later than June 1, or 14 days after they receive the statewide assessment results.

Parents, teachers or school personnel may request a good cause exemption, and superintendents have the final say.

Although Hojnacki feels Oakland Schools is well-prepared, she still doesn’t believe this law is going to “take care of the problem.”

“I don’t think it’ll reach its goal … (but) I’m stuck. I do what I’m paid to do.”

In light of the state mandate, Utica Community Schools officials said they are adding new literacy consultants to the elementary schools, and they have already been working intensely this school year.

“All 25 of our elementary schools have a literacy consultant this year,” said Michele VanDeKerkhove, UCS’s executive administrator of elementary schools.

In June, a Macomb Intermediate School District training session was filled with nearly 70 second grade teachers.

“Knowing that children learn from a variety of approaches and strategies and that the true difference in literacy instruction is the teacher, not the program, we focused on enhancing teacher learning. Thus, the goal of the training modules is to ensure that teachers have a clear understanding of a comprehensive approach to high-quality literacy instruction,” stated MISD literacy coach May Manna-Denha.


‘We’ve turned that into ... a high-stakes enterprise’
Democratic House Leader Christine Greig agreed that testing assessments like the M-STEP may not always be the best indicators of a child’s overall expertise in an area.

“I think testing assessments are tools for teachers to see how they’re doing and which kids may need additional support,” she said. “It’s a check-in, but what we’ve turned that into is a high-stakes enterprise where how a student can perform on one single day can change the course of their academic career.”

While the legislation started with the hope to enhance access to early childhood literacy resources and support across the state, Greig, from Farmington Hills — who was on the steering committee for the new law — said the conversation quickly shifted solely to the retention portion of the law, leaving everyone to question what effect it may have on students.

Greig, who supports providing more literacy-based resources and training to schools, called the retention portion “misguided.”

She doesn’t believe the efforts the state has put toward fixing its early childhood literacy issues will be justified by the results.

According to 2017 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Michigan was tied with Tennessee for 35th in the nation on fourth grade reading scores.

“I think it has the potential to improve what our current standings are. What it also has the potential to do is create a lot of additional stress on our students and teachers,” Greig said. “There really are a lot of good things in this (law). It’s just that hammer piece that causes a lot of unintended consequences. … You may reduce the number of kids reading below grade level, but at what cost?”

Beth Deshone, the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, said that despite what she called backlash aimed at retention, “we have to allow this law to work.”

“The most important educational tool for building a child’s future success is the ability to read,” Deshone said in an email. “This law has changed behaviors toward the importance of early literacy for the better. If nothing else, it is providing a support system to the more than 30,000 Michigan third graders who can’t read at grade level.”

Although the 2019 M-STEP results reported modest gains — with the number of not proficient students going from 31% in 2018 to 30.4% in 2019 — the MDE said in a statement that these scores could not be used to predict the possible student retention impact of the law as it takes effect this year. Those measures are still to be seen.


‘What it’s really saying is we don’t think you’re going to do well in school for the rest of your life’
The practice of grade retention is potentially detrimental to children’s social and emotional health, said Dr. Jessica Osburn, a licensed psychologist with Doctors for Kids PLC in Rochester Hills, who has worked closely with children with learning differences and anxiety as a school psychologist.

“I spend a lot of time working with kids, telling them that state testing isn’t about them, that it’s about measuring how the district and how the teachers are approaching that area. But now we are changing that with this law,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘This test is about you, and if you don’t do well, you’re not going to go on with your friends.’ And actually, what it’s really saying is we don’t think you’re going to do well in school for the rest of your life.”

There are looming concerns that larger numbers of children from high-poverty and urban areas, where average proficiency rates are traditionally lower, will be held back.

Socioeconomically speaking, Osburn said, well-educated parents are more likely to file a claim that their child should not get retained, and therefore, their children more often tend to get exemptions.

“Some of our kids in lower socioeconomic situations are getting held back disproportionately, so there are big implications with this law besides just reading.”

Josh Cowen, the co-director of Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, is working alongside the University of Michigan, the MDE and the Center for Educational Performance and Information to collect research and data over a five-year term that highlights the outcomes of this law.

Cowen said he expects to see some variability in terms of how reading intervention affects different groups of students and which students are granted exemptions.
“I’m fairly confident there is going to be a lot of variation within the law, and that variation is going to be directly correlated to some of the background factors we know affect outcomes already, like race, demography and parents’ education,” he said.

Cowen said his team’s overall objective is to provide scientific evidence to policymakers that will help them make the best decisions for this law as it moves forward.

For more information, visit the “Read by Grade Three” law resource page at www.michigan.gov/mde.