The Michigan Senate took a big step toward undoing an unpopular GOP-backed rule requiring districts to flag poor readers in third grade to be held back for a year.
The Senate Education Committee on Tuesday voted 5-1 to advance legislation to repeal the retention rule in Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. Earlier Tuesday the House Education Committee heard testimony on similar legislation and could vote it out of committee as soon as next week, putting one of Democrats’ top education priorities on the fast track to the House and Senate floors.
The legislation has broad support among Democrats, who control both chambers, but amendments are possible, particularly from lawmakers who might use the bill as a vehicle for bipartisan reforms in the way students are screened for dyslexia.
GOP opponents of the bill say repealing the retention rule would water down Michigan’s academic standards. But even some Republicans back the repeal effort, including state Sen. Ruth Johnson of Holly.
“There’s no skill as vital to success in life as reading but I don’t believe that a student should be held back in third grade just because they’re struggling to read,” Johnson said at Tuesday’s hearing. Instead, she said, they should be given tutoring and other help to succeed.
Sen. Dayna Polehanki, the committee’s chairperson and sponsor of the bill, said that help will be available.
“All of the supports a student would have received repeating the third grade will now be extended to a student in their fourth grade year,” said Polehanki, a Democrat from Livonia and a former teacher.
Those supports include individualized reading improvement plans, progress monitoring, read-at-home plans, and daily small-group instruction. All of those provisions would remain in state law, along with requirements for literacy coaches and professional development for teachers, Polehanki said.
State Superintendent Michael Rice testified before both committees in favor of ending the retention rule.
“Let’s eliminate the punitive, and let’s start building on the more positive to support our children,” Rice told members of the House Education Committee.
Retention is ineffective, unpopular with teachers, and damaging to students’ self-efficacy, said education researcher Katharine Strunk, who testified before both the House and Senate committees. Strunk is executive director of Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, a research partner of the Michigan Department of Education.
The retention rule hasn’t had the effect lawmakers envisioned when they passed the reading law in 2016 as a way to identify struggling readers, provide individualized help, and hire literacy coaches. The law took effect gradually, and 2021-22 was the first year third-graders were retained because of it.
Because the law allows broad exemptions, fewer than 1% of students flagged for retention actually repeat third grade. Most of them are exempted from the requirement, because of their status as English language learners or special education students, or simply because their parents and school administrators agreed that it was in the students’ best interest to promote them to fourth grade, Strunk said.
The time spent working out such agreements would be better spent on actually improving students’ reading skills, Rice told the House committee.
The retention rule “is a well-intentioned reform but it does not, in fact, meet its mark,” he said. Repealing it “doesn’t preclude retention in those rare cases where it might be a good circumstance. It simply means that the default is no longer retention.”
Spokespeople for House Speaker Joe Tate of Detroit and Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids did not immediately respond to questions about whether and when they might schedule floor votes on the repeal bill.
Johnson, who supports the bill, abstained from Tuesday’s vote, saying she intends to support the legislation if a provision is added to ensure that parents are notified about their children’s reading difficulties.
Republican Sen. John Damoose of Harbor Springs, who cast the lone no vote in the Senate committee, opposes the repeal, saying it would weaken educational standards and limit accountability.
In the House committee, too, Republican opponents of the bill said they see the retention rule as a useful tool.
State Rep. Brad Paquette, a Republican from Berrien Springs and a former teacher, said the threat of retention should remain in the law, because it could motivate students to work harder.
“I know when I was young and I had the specter of ‘Oh, you might get held back,’ that really was a good kick in the pants,” he said during the committee hearing.
Rep. Jaime Greene, vice chairperson of the House committee, said retention helps ensure that children have basic reading skills before they move on to fourth grade.
“We have one of the lowest reading levels in the country, so if we’re not going to retain them, what are we going to do?” asked Greene, a Republican from Richmond. “We’ve got to do something.”
Rice and Strunk said there’s a lot that can be done.
“More time in small groups or one-on-one with a qualified educator who is focused on literacy instruction is what we know to be the most impactful,” Strunk said.
In her State of the State address last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed a plan to provide individualized tutoring for students in all grades and all subjects. She is expected to lay out details when she presents her budget on Feb. 8.
She also proposed expanding the Great Start Readiness Program, Michigan’s public preschool, to all 4-year-olds.
“I do think we should weave preschool into the fabric of our public education system far more extensively than it is now,” Rice told the House committee Tuesday. Enrollment shouldn’t be mandatory, but it’s “enormously important” for every 4-year-old in Michigan to have access to preschool, he said.
He also asked lawmakers to provide more education funding that could be used to reduce class sizes in low-achieving districts with high poverty, to offer more professional development in reading instruction, to help students with dyslexia, and to provide programs after school and in the summer.
Democrats’ effort to repeal the retention rule could open the door to other reading reforms, including a renewed emphasis on phonics. That approach teaches children to sound out words and apply rules of spelling and pronunciation.
Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at email@example.com.