Local educators adjust to Read By Grade Three law

LAKE, MECOSTA COUNTIES — As third-graders across the state are gearing up to take the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) this spring, local educators are doing their part to ensure students meet the state-required reading level.

Signed into law in 2016, the Read By Grade Three law states that beginning with the 2019-20 school year, third-graders may be held back if they are more than one grade level behind in reading.

To determine this, the state looks at the M-STEP to identify which students are proficient in English language arts (ELA), and which ones need additional instruction.

Chippewa Hills School District Superintendent Bob Grover said while the law aims at getting kids to the recommending reading level, he does not believe it is actually benefiting students.

“I don’t necessarily see it helping,” Grover said. “Some kids don’t take the test seriously, or what if they have a bad day?”

Additionally, he said punishing students who aren’t doing well in reading isn’t going to help them get better.

“Students who struggle academically get frustrated more easily, but a lot of our teachers are super aware of these things,” Grover said.

Sue Lodes, third-grade teacher at Weidman Elementary School, also said the law could have potential stress on third-grade students.

“I think the third-grade students are a little stressed, but honestly, all students at each grade level stress out about our testing,” she said.

According to Grover, if the law had been in effect the previous academic year, one student would have to be retained. This year, he said, 51 students have been identified as needing additional academic support to reach proficiency in ELA.

These students are identified through academic assessments which take place three times a year for students in kindergarten through third grade.

Lodes said along with the assessments, teachers at Weidman have grade level meetings to assess which students need additional help. For these identified students, teachers do progress monitoring tests each week.

Though some take issue with the controversial law, Baldwin Elementary School Principal Joanie Wiersma said she has already been able to see some positive results from it.

“We started doing reaffirmations to our reading program in 2017,” Wiersma said, noting the implementation of a phonics program at the school has helped third-grade students improve on the M-STEP over the past three years.

According to Michigan School Data, 28% of third-grade students at Baldwin showed proficiency in ELA during the 2016-17 academic year. During the 2018-19 academic year, 41.4% of third-graders showed proficiency.

Additionally, Wiersma said while the law uses data from the M-STEP to identify students who are behind their grade level in reading, it is ultimately up to the school to make the decision on whether or not the student should be held back.

“Parents are able to work with the school. If there is contradicting evidence — maybe the student just had a bad day — there are other assessments we can use. Parents have to be involved in every step of the process,” she said.

Lodes agreed, noting there is more to the law then just retaining students.

“I think they created this law to make school districts be accountable; we don’t want students falling through the cracks,” she said. “The law has more than ‘If you can’t read at the third grade level by the end of third grade, you have to repeat the grade.’ It also has interventions built into it so we don’t miss those students.”

Grover said this is why additional assessments throughout the year are necessary, adding that a school district cannot allow a student who tested poorly on the M-STEP to move forward without proof the student did well on other exams.

“You have to have the data to back it up,” he said.

While schools continue to adjust to the reading law, Lodes said the best thing teachers can do is to encourage students to read and continue to identify areas where they may be falling behind.

“I am a big believer in the more you read, the better you read. Unfortunately, there is not much reading going on at home — and sometimes attendance at school is a huge factor. I feel at my school we do a great job at finding out what struggles students have and come up with interventions that will help them,” she said.