By DAVID EGGERT
LANSING, Mich. (AP) – Michigan lawmakers began debating Wednesday whether to take a hard-line stance by holding back the state’s 36,000 third-graders who are not proficient in reading.
Legislation considered by a House panel and introduced a day before would prohibit students from starting fourth grade next school year and beyond without passing the third-grade state reading assessment. The proposal immediately sparked vigorous discussion, often along party lines, about how best to bring kids up to par and catch reading problems earlier so “retention” is unnecessary.
Roughly one-third of Michigan’s public school third-graders aren’t proficient in reading. Third grade is considered a key indicator of future success because it’s when students move from learning to read to reading to learn.
“Reading proficiency is one of the most important measures in public education and it’s time we make this a top priority,” said Rep. Amanda Price, a Holland Republican and the bill sponsor who said 14 states have policies to hold back students not reading at grade level. Some offer more leeway than others.
Most of the testimony on the legislation and a bill to grade public schools from A to F instead of colors came from a representative of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.
Asked by Democrats why draw the line at third grade, senior policy fellow Christy Hovanetz said children develop and learn differently until then but must be able to read proficiently in third grade to grasp other topics later. Third grade also is the first year pupils take a statewide assessment, she said.
“We’re looking at retention as a last resort,” said Hovanetz, a former education commissioner for Florida and Minnesota. “This is for students who after four years of being in the public school system haven’t gotten the support and resources that they needed in order to become a proficient reader.”
She said the bill could be changed to require schools to give children extra help when reading problems are detected earlier. Legislators also might consider including exemptions so kids who have problems taking tests could demonstrate reading proficiency in another way, Hovanetz said.
Some Democrats on the GOP-controlled House Education Committee expressed skepticism or opposition to hold backing tens of thousands of third-graders. Rep. Theresa Abed said it reminds her of the federal No Child Left Behind law that set unrealistic expectations, leaving states to seek waivers.
“Here we go now setting another standard for third grade when we know that children are developmentally different, especially in elementary grades,” said the Grand Ledge Democrat, who contended teachers are doing their best despite funding cuts that have led to larger class sizes. “I wish the state government and the federal government would stop micromanaging our schools.”
The committee chairwoman, Republican Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons of Alto, said she’s working with Democratic Rep. Thomas Stallworth III on a separate bill to help those behind in reading.
“We’re graduating kids that can’t read,” said Stallworth, whose district includes Highland Park schools, which were sued last year along with the state and an emergency manager because only 35 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or above on the 2011-2012 Michigan Educational Assessment Program reading test. “I don’t know what the answer is. I just know that it’s a problem. So I appreciate the opportunity to have this discussion.”
More hearings are expected on the third-grade reading measure and the A-F school accountability proposal. Lyons said she has no timeline on when to move the bills to the House floor.
At least one Republican took exception to the idea that holding back third-graders is controversial. Some experts question if it helps them catch up and is damaging to their self-esteem, doing more harm than good.
“We’ve got to have high expectations for our kids and we need to push them so they can do these things,” said Rep. Pete Lund of Macomb County’s Shelby Township.
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