The Steaming Turd That is Michigan’s Third Grade Reading Law

In October of 2016, after about three years of debate, the then governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, signed a third grade reading bill into law that called for the retention of any third grader who scored more than one year behind grade level on the state test. The law required all K-3 students to be tested three times each year and students with reading deficiencies had to be given an Individual Reading Plan. Third grade students would not be retained until the 2019-2020 school year.

Which, in case you missed it, is next year.

Now that the time has come to implement the most objectionable part of the law and start actually forcing kids to repeat a grade, the state is getting cold feet. The new governor has publicly stated that she wants to get rid of the law. The Department of Education has approved new cut scores that will dramatically reduce the number of retained students from what observers first feared. While more than 55% of Michigan third graders fell short of the proficiency standard in 2018, the new scores are expected to identify just 5% of students for retention this coming year.

These are the actions of people who realize they’re dealing with a steaming turd.

You can avoid most steaming turns. If you’re out for a walk, you cross to the other side of the street should you see one in your path. More problematic is when the turd is incontrovertibly your problem, like when your dog has an accident on the living room rug or the neighbor’s mutt makes a deposit on your front lawn. In these cases, you throw the turd away.

But when the state legislature passes a law like the third grade reading law it’s as if they’ve deposited a steaming turd right on your front porch and made it illegal for you to dispose of it. Your only choice is to figure out how to mitigate its damaging effects. You don’t want to see it. You certainly don’t want to smell it. And since you can’t get rid of it, you do what you can to make it less offensive. Perhaps you spray the turd with some odor neutralizer. Even better, you cover it up with something.

That’s essentially what the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) has done. They’ve tried to make the turd less offensive by selecting a different cut score. Their justification is telling. MDE deputy superintendent Vanessa A. Keesler explained:

“A performance level of ‘not proficient’ on the ELA test does not necessarily tell us if the student is a grade level behind in terms of their reading.”

There’s plenty of evidence that the legislature knew this was a steaming turd when they passed it. First, they wrote language that limited retention to at least one grade level behind, even though they didn’t have a way of determining such a thing (the state test measures student performance against the standards; it does not report grade level performance). Second, students can only repeat third grade once. But why? If your position is that you don’t want students going to fourth grade unless they’re able to read at near a fourth grade level, then what difference does it make how old those students are? Why is passing them after a second try at third grade okay but passing them after one try not? It’s almost as if legislators recognized that retaining students is a damaging thing to do, so instead of not doing it at all, they compromised by only hurting kids for one year. Third, the state included a number of exemptions, including a revelatory one: the “good cause” exemption, which allows parents and teachers to request that a superintendent ignore the dumb test score and pass the kid on to fourth grade anyway.

These are the actions of a group of people who didn’t really want to do what they were doing but who wanted to look like they were doing something tough. They gave us a steaming turd, but they left the air freshener right next to it.

Districts should make liberal use of that air freshener. They should use the good cause exemption to avoid retaining any students. It’s both easy and legal to do. Here’s the law in its entirety and here is the relevant good cause exemption language:

“The pupil’s parent or legal guardian has requested a good cause exemption within the time period provided under subsection (10)(d) and the superintendent or chief administrator, or his or her designee, determines that the good cause exemption is in the best interests of the pupil.”

The key words here are “in the best interests of the pupil,” a phrase vague enough to cover just about anything, including the fact that retention has been found over and over again to be ineffective. (You can read a good summary of the research here.) Districts could and should use this phrase to exempt every student on the basis that retention is more likely to harm the student’s education that aid it.

Teachers who are concerned that parents might not request a good cause exemption need not worry because the law allows them to make the request themselves:

“10) The superintendent of a school district or chief administrator of a public school academy, or his or her designee, shall grant a good cause exemption under subsection (8) only through the following procedure:  (a) For a good cause exemption under subsection (8)(a) to (d), at the request of the pupil’s parent or legal guardian or upon the teacher’s own initiative, the pupil’s grade 3 teacher submits to the superintendent or chief administrator, or his or her designee, a recommendation for a good cause exemption along with documentation that indicates that a good cause exemption under subsection (8)(a) to (d) applies to the pupil.”

So here is what districts who don’t want their students harmed by the law should do:

  • Make it clear that they will honor good cause exemption requests every single time by communicating this message to parents throughout the third grade year.
  • Provide a summary of the research on retention to parents so they understand why they should seek the good cause exemption.
  • Make the process for applying for a good cause exemption easy by including a short form that is sent home with student report cards at the end of the year. Follow up with robocalls and/or emails within the 30-day window parents have to seek the exemption.
  • Provide a similarly simple form to all third grade teachers and require them to fill one out for each student the state identified for retention before they leave for the summer.

Such actions pose a question: Is it ethical to skirt a law because you don’t like it? After all, the law was passed by a majority of Michigan’s representatives and that is how our system works. If you don’t like a law, you can’t ignore it; you’re supposed to work to change it.

A few points to consider:

First, the law lacks legitimacy because of the legislature’s egregious gerrymandering. A three-judge federal court panel describes it as being of “historic proportions” and last year Michigan voters approved a proposal that amended the state Constitution to create a redistricting commission. Also, the law itself was hardly the result of a grassroots movement by the people of Michigan. Citizens were not clamoring for more accountability for third graders. Laws like these are typically the result of model legislation written by outside interest groups, many of which favor education reforms not supported by a majority of the state’s citizenry.

Second, it codifies bad practice into law. Retention is not supported by the research. Indeed, the research on retention is clear.  Researcher John Hattie wrote back in 2009 that retention is “one of the few areas in education where it is difficult to find students with a positive (d > 0.0) effect, and the few that do exist still hover close to a zero effect.” (Source)  If you as a teacher were doing something this damaging to students in your classroom, you’d be engaging in educational malpractice.

Third, we should consider the motives of the people who passed the law. These were the same people who sought to exact revenge on teachers and their unions by passing right-to-work legislation, have still not restored education funding to pre-recession levels, allowed unfettered expansion of charter schools with minimal oversight, promoted emergency manager laws that stripped control away from communities and placed it in the hands of individuals, many of whom lacked any experience in education, and have presided over Michigan’s precipitous drop in student achievement relative to other states. In short, they either don’t know what the hell they’re doing or they do know what they’re doing and they’re intentionally not acting in the best interest of Michigan’s children.

Finally, I’m not advocating that districts violate the law. Everything districts should do to avoid retaining students is legally permissible.

All of which means that districts should do everything they can to protect students from this steaming turd of a law and use the good cause exemption to pass every third grade student to fourth grade.

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