The Legislature of the State of Michigan is proposing a new law that would require all third-graders who fail a standardized reading test to be retained. At first glance, this might sound like a good idea: I mean, how can anyone argue with the notion that getting all of our students to read by third grade is important?
Take a second glance at this bill, however, and a number of things become incredibly troubling.
First, the state of Michigan does not actually know what third-grade reading test they plan to administer. This fall, third-grade students in Michigan took a MEAP test in the area of reading, but next year the state (after much debate) plans to switch to Common Core. Michigan had planned to switch to a Smarter Balanced assessment in the spring of 2015, but this is still being vigorously debated.
If that assessment is chosen as the one to use to comply with this law, it is important to note that it is an adaptive test, not a standardized test. On a test deemed so important that it could force a student to be retained in third grade, the students would not even all be receiving the same questions! Not only that, but all extended written responses on the Smarter Balanced test are “read” and graded using artificial intelligence; no human being would ever actually read the writing in question. Finally, no cut score has been set to determine what would be the threshold at which a child would be forcibly retained.
So, to summarize: We might forcibly retain thousands of third graders (36,000 third-graders failed the reading MEAP test in the fall of 2012) based on a test that has never before been used in Michigan, with an unknown cut score, that is not scored by humans, that is not designed for this purpose, and that is adaptive instead of standardized. Unreal.
Not only this, but no exceptions are carved out in this bill for special education students or for English Language Learners. Should a dyslexic child really be forced to repeat third grade math for a number of years due to his reading troubles?
In addition to all of these objections, the science behind retention is dismal. Students who are retained have worse educational outcomes (on average) than students of the same ability that are not retained. This is not to say that retention is never a possible tactic to use, but it is a decision that should be made based on parent and teacher input, not based solely on one test score.
I urge everyone in Michigan to speak up against this bill (our state superintendent and educators throughout the state have been universal in their objections to this proposal, but public opposition to the bill is clearly needed as well), and if the bill does become law, I encourage schools to try to minimize the damage it causes by officially calling a child a third-grader for paperwork purposes only while still sending them on to a fourth-grade classroom for every subject other than reading. It would be a travesty for our children’s futures to be so dramatically harmed by such a thoughtless, ill-conceived law.