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Michigan Truth Squad: Bill Schuette says Michigan is ‘last’ in third-grade reading

Jun 7, 2018

Bill Schuette, Michigan’s attorney general and the frontrunner in the Republican primary for governor, has a line he offers in stump speeches and, last week, on a debate stage at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Michigan, he says, is last in the nation in third-grade reading.

Is that true?

There’s no doubt education is a big issue for candidates running for governor, and for good reason. Standardized tests show Michigan students are learning less than students in most other states. The average fourth-grader in Michigan is reading at a grade level 1.5 grades lower than the average Massachusetts fourth-grader, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, as one example. And Michigan ranks in the bottom third of states nationally in most subjects and grades tested by NAEP.

The impact goes far beyond the classroom. States with a higher percentage of adults with a college education generally have higher median incomes. Higher incomes mean more taxes, which mean more money for roads, public safety and other state expenditures.

In January, Michigan didn’t make the cut as a finalist for a second Amazon headquarters that promised as many as 50,000 new jobs, with one reason widely thought to be a lack of an educated workforce.

In recent years, dozens of reports have been written about the need to improve Michigan schools. One common theme in those reports is the need to improve early reading skills.

So it’s no surprise that gubernatorial candidates including Schuette have made school improvement, and early reading in particular, a key talking point.

Unfortunately, Schuette’s claim that Michigan third-graders are the worst readers in the United States is based on a misinterpretation of one line in the introduction to one report, with no data to back it up.

The claim

“Our third-grade reading scores are the lowest in land.”

That’s what Schuette said in his closing statement at the gubernatorial candidate forum Thursday at the Mackinac Policy Conference. Earlier in the forum, which included the top three Republican and top three Democratic candidates, Schuette said, “When you look at our third-grade reading scores that are the lowest in America, when only 35 percent of our third graders are proficient in reading, they’ve been failed.”

In total, Schuette mentioned third-grade reading four times in the one-hour forum. Beyond the examples above, the attorney general also said “our third-grade reading scores are (at) the bottom of the heap,” during a question about taxes, and “we need third-grade reading scores that are going up, instead of being at the bottom” in a question about revenue sharing.

Schuette spokesman John Sellek points to a study released in January by Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit Michigan advocacy group, as the source for the candidate’s claim. In an introductory letter to that report, Executive Director Amber Arellano, writes, “a new analysis by The Education Trust-Midwest shows Michigan’s third-graders are the lowest performing students in the U.S. among peers based on the state’s assessment.”

The facts

That ETM analysis, though, is based on scores from just 11 states, not 50, as the 48-page report makes clear after the introductory section. Among 11 states that give third-graders a test similar to Michigan’s M-STEP, Michigan third-graders were last in the amount they improved their reading scores, and tied for last in raw reading scores.

The statement cited by Schuette’s campaign can easily be construed to suggest Michigan is last in the nation, rather than last among 11 states tested.

There is no common test given to third-graders in all 50 states that allow for comparisons in reading skills. As a result, there’s no definitive way to know where Michigan ranks in third-grade reading in the nation. We could be “the bottom,” as Schuette said. Or, we could conceivably be as high as 12th (if the other 38 states chose to give its third-graders an M-STEP-like test).

There are, though, state-to-state comparisons for fourth graders. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card,” Michigan’s fourth-graders ranked 35th in the nation in 2017, up from 41st in 2015.

When asked by Truth Squad about the line in her letter claiming Michigan students were the “lowest performing in the U.S.,” Arellano answered:

“Michigan is last for improvement and performance in third-grade reading among nearly a dozen states that use a comparable test to Michigan’s M-STEP. But regardless of the measure, we all can agree that with more than half of Michigan students reading below grade level by the third grade, we must do much, much more to support Michigan’s young learners.

“This issue undermines the future prosperity of Michigan students, families and communities, and should be taken seriously by anyone running for public office.”

Schuette spokesperson Sellek said the candidate will continue to “focus like a laser on improving third-grade reading scores that by all measures are seriously lacking, and by some rankings the worst, as the Ed Trust report said.”

It’s good that Schuette, along with other gubernatorial candidates, is taking the need for school improvement seriously. But for that effort to succeed, it’s important for candidates to know, and relay to the public, accurate information about the state of our schools.

Schuette has repeatedly said Michigan is last in the nation in third-grade reading. And while it’s understandable how he could have gleaned that from one line in an introduction section to one report, that claim does not appear to be knowable, as even that same report should have made clear.