3rd graders were supposed to be held back if they couldn’t read. Then COVID-19 hit.

Michigan teacher evaluations also in flux

By: - March 29, 2020 6:04 am

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The new controversial Read by Grade Three Law for schools was already stressful for teachers. But amid the COVID-19 shutdown and changing developments, it’s likely to be much harder to enforce.

It’s unlikely that students will be back in the classroom during the 2019-20 school year. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down all schools in Michigan on March 16, and as of now, students are supposed to return on April 13. Although no formal announcement has been made, the governor has acknowledged that buildings will probably not reopen this school year.

Susan J. Demas graphic

Michigan’s third-grade reading law, signed in 2016 by GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, states public schools are required to hold back all students who fail to meet a certain reading proficiency level based on modified results of the state’s standardized test.

According to MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC), that could include up to 5% of all third-graders across the state. The law was delayed until this current school year, and students would be held back for the 2020-21 school year. 

There was a big development earlier this month. On March 20, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a West Michigan native, announced the department will grant a waiver for standardized testing for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year upon request from each state’s Department of Education. 

Initially, the U.S. Department of Education refused to waive standardized testing for states unless it was during the time schools were shut down. Rice and state Board of Education President Casandra Ulbrich wrote a letter to DeVos requesting that she reconsider.

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“Many children will struggle with the long absence from school. It will take many districts a considerable period of time to resume normal functioning, not to mention refocusing on the instruction of children,” Rice and Ulbrich wrote.

Without the testing metric, the state’s Read by Grade Three Law seems to face an uncertain fate.

State Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) has requested a bill to waive the reading assessment law, which she said will most likely have to be updated since DeVos’ announcement. 

Sen. Dayna Polehanki

“If there’s no test, then there’s no data. Therefore, there can be no mass retention of students under a third grade reading law,” Polehanki said.

But it’s up to the Legislature to make the call on the reading law, which has been a partisan lightning rod. 

Whitmer vs. Republicans

The legislation was a GOP priority, while Democrats and teachers unions have been fiercely critical.

Whitmer has repeatedly called for the law, which some teachers refer to as “read or flunk,” to be revisited. In her late January State of the State address, the governor said the law is “punitive” and could be a nightmare for families. Her proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget triples the number of literacy coaches and she has said she believes the law disregards educational research.

However, GOP leaders have stood by the law. After Whitmer’s speech, state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) told reporters it would be “cruel to pass kids through the school system who can’t read.”

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) added during that press conference that he’s open to working with Whitmer about the early literacy law, but doesn’t believe it should be repealed. In a Feb. 5 Detroit News op-ed, Shirkey slammed Whitmer’s “rebellion” against the Read by Grade Three Law.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (front center), Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (left), Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist (back center) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (right) at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

“To blatantly and unabashedly demonstrate complete disregard for the law, and by doing so, continue to set too many of our kids up for failure is disturbing and embarrassing for our state,” Shirkey wrote. “Our governor’s call to ignore the law and essentially abandon these children is outrageous.”

So where do things stand now with the shakeup caused by the COVID-19 crisis?

Rice told the Advance the new law should be delayed because testing has been canceled.

“The state tests are the foundation of the retention portion of the Read By Grade Three law. If it’s not appropriate to give the state tests this year, and it isn’t, it is certainly not appropriate to implement anything whose foundation is the state tests this year,” Rice said.

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Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann said he led a conference call with education leaders and state legislators this week to discuss the issues impacting schools and families as a result of the closure, and he is working to develop short- and long-term actions to address the concerns. 

The standardized test waiver has other implications. Teachers’ end-of-the-year evaluations are also partially determined by learning growth and the spring standardized testing scores.

Polehanki has another bill that’s being drafted that would eliminate the student growth portion of teachers’ evaluations entirely for this school year.

“Teachers cannot accurately show student growth based on end-of-year assessments when they have lost weeks of instructional time preceding the assessments,” Polehanki said. 

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Legislative action

The Legislature would have to come back to address issues with the third-grade reading law and teacher evaluations.

Neither the House nor Senate has been back in session since March 17, when there was a marathon session. Since then, one legislator, state Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), tested positive for COVID-19 and health experts say lawmakers and staff should take precautions to self-quarantine.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has OK’d bodies to meet electronically during the coronavirus crisis.

The Legislature has other unfinished business with schools. Legislators on March 17 approved an additional $125 million to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak in the state. House Bill 4729 allocates money for hospital services, medical supplies, general efforts and some was set aside to be transferred to needs as necessary. 

The Legislature is meeting amid coronavirus. Some lawmakers are worried.

However, an education supplemental was not approved that would have increased pay for hourly school employees and ensured that time off due to the statewide school shutdown doesn’t count against state days and hours requirements for school districts under law.  

A coalition of the Michigan Education Association (MEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Michigan, Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators and Michigan Association of School Boards have slammed the lack of action. 

Shirkey said the Senate will continue conversations about legislation to address the needs of the schools and is “exploring additional funding to extend the school year in the event temporary closures last longer than anticipated.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.