Rewrite needed for literacy help

The story of Michigan’s third-grade reading retention law was destined to be a beach read — short, gritty and perhaps soon forgotten, as a bill for repeal heads to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk where it will likely be signed.

The law itself, passed in 2016’s Republican Legislature headed by Gov. Rick Snyder, was aimed at addressing Michigan’s educational shortfalls, apparent before COVID-19 and steadily getting worse.

National Assessment of Educational Progress found Michigan’s fourth-grade students recorded their lowest reading scores in three decades in 2022, ranking Michigan 40th nationwide.

We are one of 17 states with a reading retention law; eight others allow retention but don’t require it, according to Bridge Michigan.

Retention is a charged issue, with detractors saying that holding back students adds to inequities in the system that disproportionately impact low-income and Black students. Nearly 75 percent of Michigan teachers and 90 percent of principals think retention is ineffective.

As far as the numbers go, in Michigan, we likely will never know. As the law was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have numbers only from 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. The first year, less than 7 percent of third-graders eligible for retention were held back — 229 out of 3,477 — a lower percentage than before the law even went into effect.

The second year, retention was used more frequently, impacting one in five retention-eligible kids and showing greater numbers retained in Black, low-income, urban and charter school students.

The likely repeal of the law, however, shouldn’t mean that we stop striving to improve our struggling literacy rates or studying the impacts of retention. Boston University’s Educational Policy Center found that in Mississippi, which put a third-grade retention policy in place earlier than Michigan, found that the third graders held back in 2014-15 had higher ELA scores in the sixth grade, with positive effects for Black and Hispanic/Latinx students in particular.

We’re not sorry to see the mandatory retention policy go, but we need the attention on improving literacy to stay. Early literacy can be a determining factor in more than just academic achievement — it sets kids on a healthier path through graduation and into adulthood.

We’re glad the repeal law maintains supports for struggling students and institutions — but we can’t close the book on addressing systemic shortfalls in education.


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