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Michigan's third-grade reading law could hold back 70% of English language learners

Nov 20, 2017

Michigan is one of the 15 states plus the District of Columbia to have a Third-Grade Reading Retention Law.

Starting in 2020, a third-grader who doesn't meet a certain reading proficiency level will have to repeat that grade.

In response, schools are preparing for a potential surge in English Language Learner (ELL) students who may be held back because of the law.

Paula Winke, part of Michigan State University’s Second Language Studies Program, and Suzanne Toohey, a curricula developer and assessor for English language learners in Oakland Schools, joined Stateside to explain what this law could mean for students.

Listen to the full conversation above, or read highlights below.

On who will be affected

“If we use that cut point that’s commonly accepted as what we think will be the cut point between level two and three—anyone below proficient—what we found is that, out of all of the children in the state of Michigan who are English Language Learners … only 31% of them will pass,” Winke said.

The numbers look worse for certain demographics than others as well. 

Winke (left) and her co-researcher Xiaowan Zhang (right) have been studying what this law could mean for students who are ELL with Michigan State University's Second Language Studies Program.
Credit courtesy of Paula Winke

“Boys tend to do a little bit worse in standardized tests… but it gets worse if the boys are from economically-disadvantaged families, then their pass rate goes even further down to 25%, and it’s even worse if they are Spanish-native speakers, then their pass rate goes to less than 20%,” Winke said.

On effectiveness

“It’s very complicated because there’s a lot of research that says that retention is not effective, it’s not an effective intervention, but I do think that a focus on students’ literacy is a fortunate byproduct of the law,” Toohey said.

Families with children who have been instructed for three years or less also have the option to ask the superintendent for exemptions, but Winke says that the lag in reading proficiency can take more than three years to overcome.

“Bilingual development shows up in a slow-down of reading acquisition, but only for a certain amount of time,” Winke said. “Children have that lag for three to seven years, but then after that, they start to progress very quickly in reading in the language of instruction and they end up leap-frogging their peers.”

Winke said that she doesn’t see the difference in “how English language learners progress in reading” being “represented by the law.”

On how schools are preparing

“The districts are encouraging their teachers to participate and taking them through professional learning to increase their proficiency as educators in providing literacy instruction,” Toohey said. “We’re also, outside of that piece, looking at how can we best educate parents.”

Toohey said that Oakland County schools are putting together read-at-home plans and working with parents to encourage literacy in the first language as well as English. The informational letter about the law that is being sent to families in the county is also currently being translated into a dozen languages.

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