Many education advocates say they’re pleased the Legislature is poised to ax the requirement to hold back students who don’t learn how to read by third grade.
But they say there also needs to be better screenings and interventions for students, such as those with characteristics of dyslexia, in order for the law to be successful in improving the state’s failing literacy rates.
Those advocating for more effective support for students with dyslexia say the interventions laid out in the state’s Read by Grade 3 law are not specific enough to keep kids from “falling through the cracks.”
“Let’s screen to find the right kids. Let’s make sure teachers know the kind of techniques they should use in teaching reading that is based on science and that is for all kids. It’s not just dyslexic kids. Those things have got to be included, or they’re not going to see a change in anything,” said Susan Ward Schmidt, a literacy tutor and retired teacher from Ann Arbor.
The state’s Read by Grade 3 law, signed into law last decade by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, aims to improve Michigan’s low literacy rates by requiring schools identify struggling students through students’ scores on the English Language Arts portion of the state’s standardized test, the M-STEP.
The law, as currently written, requires schools to retain third graders who score below 1,252 on the M-STEP — a cut point that measures one year of instruction lost. The law also includes required interventions for struggling students, like literacy coaches and individualized learning plans.
State Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), the Senate Education Committee chair and a former teacher, introduced Senate Bill 12 early this year, which aims to reform Michigan’s third-grade reading law by removing the retention mandate.
SB 12 passed out of the Senate Education Committee last month. Polehanki told the Advance on Tuesday that the bill will likely go before the Senate for a final vote this week.
Studies show that students who are retained early in their education have lower social-emotional development, increased likelihood of disciplinary incidents, lower graduation rates and a higher likelihood of criminal activity later in life, Katharine Strunk, director of Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC), said during a Senate Education Committee meeting last week.
Michigan continues to have an early literacy problem. In 2022, Michigan dropped in state rankings in fourth-grade reading, from 32nd in 2019 to 43rd.
The push for ‘valid and reliable’ dyslexia screeners
Many education advocates, whether they support or oppose the retention component in the current law, say it needs to do more to support early literacy interventions.
“I never was totally comfortable with the idea of holding the kids back. If we could do away with that and then achieve accountability [for schools], I’d be more than happy to do away with that component. Provided, for me to support it, they’re going to have to deal with dyslexia,” said Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake), the only lawmaker still in office who cosponsored the original Read By Grade 3 bill in 2015.
According to a recent report from EPIC, the number of retention-eligible students increased in the 2020-22 school year. Despite nearly 6% of third graders flagged as retention-eligible, districts retained just .6%, or 545 students, of all tested students because parents and educators were able to exempt students from retention for a myriad of reasons.
Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), along with colleagues from both sides of the aisle, introduced legislation last term to implement assessments to help find out if students struggling with literacy were experiencing characteristics of dyslexia.
“Kids who are experiencing characteristics of dyslexia represent a big cohort of the kids who are falling through the cracks currently,” Irwin said.
Last term, Irwin, Polehanki, Runestad and Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) introduced Senate Bills 380–383 to screen students for “characteristics of dyslexia and difficulties in learning to decode accurately and efficiently,” improve educators’ training to teach reading and establish a dyslexia resource guide advisory committee within the Michigan Department of Education. The bills were passed by the Senate in April 2021, but eventually died in the House Education Committee.
Education advocates say legislation needs to go beyond SB 12 and cutting retention from the law.
“They’re going to take out the retention piece, because why make kids suffer because schools aren’t doing what they should do, so that’s good. But that’s not going to make any difference at all in helping kids be more successful,” Ward Schmidt said.
Ward Schmidt said what set the package of dyslexia bills apart from the interventions included in the Read by Grade 3 legislation was that it defined “valid and reliable screeners.”
According to SB 380, a “valid and reliable” screener tests to see if students can sound out letters, quickly name letters, correspond letters and sounds, identify words, decode and pronounce words accurately and read fluently, among other things.
Currently there are no requirements for what makes a screener “valid and reliable” written into state law, which is something the dyslexia bills aim to change.
Many schools use the look-say method to teach reading, Ward Schmidt said, which teaches young students to read words as whole units, rather than breaking the word down by letter.
This method of instruction is ineffective for students who have dyslexia or characteristics of dyslexia, she said.
“What we’re looking to do now is to design language that will give us sufficient specificity to really zero in on this significant issue, but without giving so much specificity that it locks the state into our current understanding of the science of reading or locks the state into dealing with any particular vendor,” Irwin said.
However, it’s not likely that these changes will make it into Senate Bill 12.
Dems’ plan: First, repeal retention. Then, improve interventions.
Polehanki said she wants to keep the bill to amend the Read by Grade 3 law “clean” without adding other initiatives.
“There have been a couple of offers to amend my Senate Bill 12, which I wanted to be a clean bill, just do one thing and not get bogged down with stuff that makes it complicated,” Polehanki said. “There’s a new majority so people are wanting to tack things on to the very first bill and I completely understand that. That being said, Senate Bill 12 is going to remain a clean bill that does just that one thing.”
Polehanki, who sponsored SB 382 last term, said she isn’t “abandoning” efforts to identify early on students with dyslexia — it’s just that such measures won’t be added to SB 12.
Irwin said he hopes that if the Legislature passes SB 12, and the retention component is removed from the Read by Grade 3 law, “then we go on to replace that with more support and interventions that are likely to be effective in promoting literacy and making sure that kids don’t fall through the cracks.”
With a new term, the dyslexia bills will need to be reintroduced.
“I’m more than willing to introduce them with Democrat sponsors as well. My approach is whatever gets them through, I will do,” said Runestad, who was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child. “If I need to stay off of it, I’ll do that as well. If we can introduce parts of the bill into the Read by Grade 3, I would do that as well.”
Irwin said lawmakers are having conversations with educators and stakeholders to revise the dyslexia legislation so that it will “work well with the changes that are currently being contemplated and voted” in SB 12.
“This affects a large number of kids and there are a whole host of kids who are currently falling through the cracks because they experience very mild characteristics of dyslexia,” Irwin said. “And these are the sorts of kids who, if they get relatively limited interventions at a young age to connect the dots on how to decode language, are going to be great readers and it’s going to support them throughout their whole educational lifetime.”
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