No M-Step: Now What?

Understanding the Read by Grade Three Law

In this ever-changing climate, both federal and state laws are being enacted or amended by the minute. Educational laws are at the forefront of many parents’ minds: in particular, the third grade reading law. 

While the third grade reading law isn’t being enforced this school year because all Michigan schools have been physically closed and statewide testing suspended, the law isn’t going away. So what does this mean for kids?   

Understanding the law

First, it’s helpful to understand what the law states. The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) put together a two-page document that summarizes the law for families. Essentially, the law is meant to help identify children who are reading and writing below grade level. If a school identifies a student is struggling, an Individual Reading Improvement Plan (IRIP) is created.

The part of the law that has caused quite a bit of controversy and concern states that if a student is a year behind grade level at the end of third grade, the student is supposed to be held back and repeat the grade. Most educators feel that retention does more harm than good. The M-Step, an assessment taken by all third graders to test English and math skills, was meant to be the primary measure of a student’s proficiency.  

However, there are other measures educators can use to determine if a child is ready to advance to the fourth grade, such as their own classroom assessments and a child’s portfolio. It’s also important to note that if parents do not agree with the recommendation for retention, they have 30 days to file a Good Cause Exemption upon notification. After the parents’ case has been made, it is still ultimately up to the school to decide whether the child should be retained or not.  

Governor Whitmer was beginning efforts in January to ensure parents understood this aspect of the law. For example, students with a Section 504 plan, Individualized Education Plan (IEP), or less than three years of instruction in an English Language Learner program would qualify for an exemption.

Why the law was created


Former State Representative Amanda Price is the primary author of the law. She and Thomas Stallworth III were both on the educational policy committee and were alarmed by the data concerning children’s reading abilities.

At first, two separate bills were proposed. Stallworth’s proposed bill focused on extra reading support and Price’s focused on the retention piece. Eventually, both bills were combined and then put into law in October 2016. 

Price shares, “I love to read. It really struck me when I heard the data that so many kids aren’t able to read. That’s why I introduced the legislation.”

Michigan State Representative Tim Kelly was also on the educational policy committee. One of his major concerns at the time was the low number of kids who were proficient in reading and the fact that prison projections were based on 4th grade reading levels.  

“We’ve got lots of kids who graduate high school who can’t read,” Kelly states. “We wanted to put an end to that. That’s what this law was intended to do.”

Why retention

“The law was never intended to hold kids back. It was intended to help kids improve their reading ability,”  Price explains. “Unfortunately, people focus on the retention piece versus everything else that’s in the law in terms of assessment, interventions, literacy coaches, and methodology for teaching that are intended to help kids learn how to read.” 

Kelly says, “If a child is not proficient, we felt they should be held back with the thought that, we’re not doing them any favors if we allow them to move forward. I think we’re pushing too many kids along without them grasping what they’re actually taught.” 

Improving reading outcomes

A mental shift happens in third grade. Students are no longer learning to read; they are reading to learn. How do we ensure all students are able to make this mental shift?

Kelly believes the best way to improve student reading proficiency is to improve teacher education programs. “The most fundamental thing a teacher can impart upon a student is the ability to read. If you can’t teach kids how to read properly, they’re not gonna get it.”

Kelly shares that the “science of reading makes it clear that Phonics-based instruction is really the only way to go.” His concern is that many universities are still educating teachers on using a whole language approach to reading. “That’s the crux of the problem.”

Since the law was passed, Price shares there have been “amazing efforts to improve literacy in Michigan.” For example, a list of Literacy Essentials, 10 things that need to happen in the classroom every day, was created by the Early Literacy Task Force, a subcommittee of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA) General Education Leadership Network (GELN). Nell K. Duke, Ed.D., a professor from the University of Michigan, was instrumental in helping develop and train teachers on these literacy essentials. 

“People are now trying to put a process improvement focus around literacy in Michigan and that is encouraging to me” Price states.

Both Kelly and Price encourage parents to be heavily involved in knowing where their child is in regards to reading proficiency at school and encourage reading at home often.

“Parents are the first, best teachers of their kids,” Price explains. “They need to be involved in this process of helping their children read.” 

She also recognizes kids in poverty need more intervention and encourages schools to do whatever they can to support these families.

What happens now

So even though the M-Step has been canceled this school year, could third graders who were considered by their schools to be more than a grade level behind in reading still be retained?

State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice said since state tests are the foundation of the retention portion of the Read By Grade Three law, “if it’s not appropriate to give the state tests this year, and it isn’t, it is certainly not appropriate to implement anything whose foundation is the state tests this year.”  

Scot A. Graden, Superintendent of Saline Area Schools wants to assure his families that there are no plans to hold anyone back. He agrees that the ability to read well by third grade is critical

but “we don’t feel retention is the answer” and there are often “much deeper issues” when a student is behind that the legislation doesn’t solve. 

The district’s plan is to come up with a plan and have educators create a curriculum for the upcoming school year that captures what was lost. “Many students and families are under strain,” shares Graden. “We need to assume no new learning occurred after March 16th and try to capture those lost weeks in the fall.”

The ultimate goal for Saline Area Schools is to have all students back on track by the fall of 2021. “We decided it’s better to capture on the back-end than the front-end, given the uncertain nature we find ourselves in. We can be more efficient the following summer getting students back on track, as needed.” 

For parents who are worried about their children falling further behind with reading as a result of lost facetime with teachers, Graden encourages parents to reach out to their teachers and principal. “Our reading tutors are prepared to do interventions using email, video conferencing, and by physically sending materials.”

“We are here to help,” Graden shares. “Don’t hesitate to share your concerns.” 

Regardless of their suggested methodology, both educators and lawmakers share the common goal of ensuring all students are reading with proficiency and want to support parents in this endeavor. 

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