LANSING (AP) – Michigan lawmakers agreed Tuesday on legislation aimed at improving third-graders’ reading that had been snagged in a fight over making students repeat the grade if they are too far behind.

A House-Senate conference committee, where the bill was pending since March, approved the measure 5-1 — with four Republicans and one Democrat in support and another Democrat opposed. The GOP-led Legislature was expected to send the legislation to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday.

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Under the bill, students could not enroll in fourth grade starting in the 2019-20 school year unless their state reading score is less than one grade level behind, they show proficiency through an alternative assessment or demonstrate mastery through work samples. “Good cause” exemptions would be allowed, however.

Sixteen states require the retention of third-graders who do not meet grade-level expectations in reading, according to the Education Commission of the States.

“The overarching goal here is that we increase proficiency in reading. I think our numbers right now are something that we would all agree are not acceptable, nothing we’re proud of,” House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, told reporters after the panel vote.

Fewer than half of Michigan third-graders were proficient in English language arts on the state assessment that was given in the spring. Third grade is considered a key benchmark because it is the last year students learn to read before transitioning to reading to learn.

In the initial House- and Senate-passed versions of the bill, legislators agreed to provide “good cause” exemptions from being held back to kids with disabilities, a limited grasp because English is their second language or who have been previously held back despite receiving intensive reading help for at least two years.

The House objected, however, when the Senate added three more in March — for newer students who did not receive an appropriate individualized reading intervention in their old district, those whose principal and reading teacher agree that other evaluations show they are ready for fourth grade or in cases when the superintendent determines that exemptions are in students’ “best interests.”

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The compromise bill would remove the exemption initiated by a principal or teacher. But it would keep intact a superintendent’s ability to designate another person, including a teacher, to decide if an exemption is approved.

Students who lag in reading but are proficient in math, science and social studies would not be held back in those subjects.

Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, voted against the measure. He said students in wealthier homes with “more involved” parents could easily obtain exemptions allowing their children to advance to fourth grade while homeless or low-income students whose parents “are just not around” would be held back disproportionately. “I’m really concerned that this bill inadvertently targets poor kids for retention.”

The measure’s backers countered that it is needed to set the expectation that students must read at grade level and to hold schools accountable for academic performance.

Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a school-choice advocacy group that has lobbied for the bill since 2013, said it would “set a line in the sand that says kids need to read proficiently in order to achieve success in school and in life.”

Lawmakers are more united on parts of the legislation unrelated to retention, such as requiring schools to assess and screen all K-3 students on reading and to intervene with those with deficiencies. “Literacy coaches” would model appropriate instruction and training for teachers.

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