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So Michigan wants to hold back your third grader. What happens next?

The third-grade classroom for struggling readers at Detroit Premier Academy was divided into stations.
A third-grade classroom for struggling readers at Detroit Premier Academy, a charter school, in 2019. Students who are flagged for retention by the state due to low test scores need more help at school.
Koby Levin

The letters containing the bad news are being delivered by certified mail to the parents of 3,324 students.

The students’ low scores on the state English exam “may require them to repeat third grade,” the letter says, adding: “We understand this may be difficult news to hear.”

Difficult, yes — no one wants their child to struggle with reading. But they have options. Exemptions built into Michigan’s controversial third grade reading law allow parents and educators broad leeway to move struggling young readers on to the next grade if that’s what they think is best for the child.

All they really have to do is ask, but the clock is ticking. Parents must submit exemption requests within 30 days of receiving that certified letter.

For children at risk of being held back, the next few weeks will be pivotal. Retention is a hotly debated education policy that could be harmful to children’s well-being, experts say. School officials are working to connect with parents, but some worry that they won’t reach the most vulnerable students in time.

Here are a few simple steps to take right away:

Call your school

“If parents receive that letter from the state, their very first step should be to reach out to their school,” said David Mustonen, spokesman for Dearborn Public Schools, where parents have received 38 letters and counting. “The teachers, principals at the schools are very much familiar with the law.”

Educators can also help parents decide whether repeating a grade would benefit their child.

If they want their child to move on to fourth grade, they’ll need to submit a request for a “good cause exemption.”

While there are a number of specific exemptions for students with special needs, no parent needs a specific reason to advance their child to the next grade. Parents can simply state that they believe it’s in their child’s “best interest.”

This request must be submitted for approval by the district superintendent within 30 days of receiving the letter, and there is a good chance it will be approved.

Many Michigan superintendents oppose the retention portion of the third grade reading law and say they plan to promote struggling readers to the fourth grade if that’s what parents want.

Consider the effects of retention

Researchers and educators argue that retaining students does not improve their reading outcomes and can have negative effects on their mental health and behavior.

A summary of evidence from experts at Brown University can be found here.

The Michigan Department of Education, education associations, and Democratic lawmakers oppose Michigan’s third grade retention policy.

“Mass grade retention doesn’t work,” said Sen. Dayne Polehanki, a Democrat, in a committee hearing last month. “It doesn’t help kids to read. Moreover the data shows that retaining kids can be emotionally harmful in a typical year, but in a pandemic it’s my feeling that it’s just plain cruel.”

Supporters of the “read or flunk” component of Michigan’s third grade reading law viewed holding students back as a way to pressure schools to improve student reading scores.

One Republican legislator who helped pass the law later anonymously told researchers that the policy was necessary because “schools will not do anything unless there’s some punitive measure.”

Tell school officials your child needs more support

The state is recommending retention for third graders who received a score of 1252 or less on the English portion of this year’s M-STEP, the state’s standardized test. That score means the student is “not proficient” in English, faring more poorly in the subject than the vast majority of the state’s more than 100,000 third graders.

Children singled out for retention because of low test scores need more support at school, Mustonen said.

“Let’s not panic, let’s see what we can do to support your child to make sure that if they are behind in reading or any other subject, what interventions can we do at school, can you do at home, to get that child caught back up,” he said.

Tutoring, summer school, and “accelerated” classes can all help struggling learners improve their skills.

The evidence points against so-called “remedial classes,” however. These are classes where, for example, struggling fourth grade readers might be taken to a different room during the regular English lesson and taught third grade skills. Children should continue to learn age appropriate content, according to the Michigan Department of Education. Learn more about the difference between accelerated and remedial classes here.

The law is still under debate

On the same day that the state began sending letters to parents of struggling third grade readers, state lawmakers debated a plan to eliminate the retention rules this year due to the pandemic.

No decisions have been made yet. Just in case, parents should reach out to their schools soon after receiving the letter.

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