student reading
Michigan’s Democratic-controlled House voted Tuesday to repeal the part of the state’s controversial third-grade reading law that required students who test more than a grade behind in reading to repeat third grade. (Shutterstock)

LANSING — The Michigan Senate voted Wednesday to dismantle a controversial law requiring students to repeat the third grade if they’re behind in reading skills. 

This story also appeared in Bridge Michigan

In a 22-16 vote, senators moved to repeal requirement that third graders who’ve fallen a year or more behind on state standards for reading comprehension be held back instead of advancing to fourth grade.

The “read or flunk” provision approved as part of a 2016 law signed by former Gov. Rick Snyder aimed at assisting struggling readers and improving accountability in schools.

Democrats and education advocates have long argued the retention requirement should get tossed, pointing to studies claiming doing so hurt students psychologically, disproportionately impacted low-income and minority students and simply doesn’t work.

Repealing the provision was named a top priority by legislative Democrats after they won majorities in both legislative chambers last fall. 

Senate Bill 12, does away with the retention policy, but keeps provisions outlining how schools assess students for reading skills and what interventions to provide. The bill requires the state to notify parents if their students have a reading deficiency that qualifies for state intervention in the fourth grade. 

“It’s ineffective and out of touch education policy like this that led me to run for office,” said Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, a former teacher. “This bill will ensure our kids have the reading supports they need—and eliminate the punitive and problematic mandatory retention piece they don’t.” 

Most Republicans voted against the measure, except Sens. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, and Joe Bellino, R-Monroe. 

Sen. John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs, argued that nixing the retention portion of the law is unwise, especially as students struggle to recover from learning loss after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now is not the time to weaken standards and accountability or to take tools out of our toolbox,” Damoose said. 

The third-grade reading law was passed in 2016, but the retention component did not go into effect until students took standardized assessments in the 2020-2021 school year. That means the first group of students that were retained were in fall 2021.

The law allowed several exceptions, including whether they’d previously been held back or if the parent and superintendent agreed retention wasn’t in the child’s best interest.

Michigan State University researchers found that of the nearly 5,700 students eligible for retention this fall, only 545 students were held back. Researchers also found that Black students and those from low-income families are more than twice as likely to be held back compared to their white and higher-income peers.

The report found 13.6 percent of the Black students who were flagged were held back, while 5.7 percent of white students flagged repeated third grade. Similarly, 10.5 percent of eligible students from low-income families were held back, compared with 4.3 percent of students who are not from low-income families. 

Both Democrats and Republicans have endorsed investing more heavily in reading tutors to help struggling students catch up by third grade.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, said Tuesday he believed the passage of the initial third-grade reading law “was a real miscarriage of the legislative process” and usurped the work being done at the local level to intervene when kids were struggling with reading. 

He urged lawmakers to “just scrap the whole thing” with a full repeal instead of prescribing a one-size-fits-all solution to school districts with varying needs. 

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