by Ron French, Bridge

Once a week, Amanda Price volunteers in a first-grade classroom in Lakeshore Elementary in Holland. “They’re doing great,” said the former Republican legislator of the kids she works with.

But when Price, who chaired the House Education Committee until she retired in 2016, looks at tests revealing the reading skills of Michigan children in schools across the state, “I just want to cry.

“I cry when I see these lives being wasted,” Price said. “I don’t think the average parent knows where we are with literacy.”

The reading skills of Michigan’s third-graders are declining, according to the state’s standardized test, M-STEP. The first year M-STEP was given, in the 2014-15 school year, 50 percent of third-graders were proficient in English language arts. The following year, 46 percent of third graders were proficient. By 2016-17, the rate was 44 percent.

That’s despite almost $80 million being spent by the state on early reading efforts during those years, and a looming deadline two years from now, when third-graders who are one year or more behind in reading skills will be retained in that grade, under a state law passed in 2016.  Early literacy funds are given to school districts and intermediate school districts to pay for early reading efforts ranging from reading specialists to new curriculum to smaller class sizes in early grades.

“We are in a furious crisis, and we can’t keep doing things the way we’ve done for decades,” said Amber Arellano, president of Education Trust-Midwest, a Michigan-based nonprofit education reform group.

In a report released today, Education Trust-Midwest sounds the alarm about Michigan’s flailing K-12 system, focusing on the state’s inability to improve third-grade reading skills while most other states are making progress.

Researchers and educators say that how well a child reads in third grade is a key indicator of future academic success. Michigan, and many other states, have focused efforts on improving early reading skills.

Despite that focus, third-grade English language arts scores have dropped from 2014-15 to 2016-17 across the board:

  • White students: 58 percent to 52 percent.
  • Black students: 23 percent to 19 percent.
  • Hispanic students: 37 percent to 32 percent.
  • Economically disadvantaged: 35 percent to 29 percent.
  • Non-economically disadvantaged: 66 percent to 60 percent.

Bill DiSessa, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education, said the department believes there are no structural changes to the test that would account for the drop in reading scores.

MDE has “identified no exact cause” for the decline, DiSessa said in an email to Bridge.

DiSessa said English language arts scores are stagnant or dropping across the country, but data to back up the department’s claim is mixed at best.

The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the only national test that allows cross-state comparisons across all states, does not test third-graders. But it does test fourth-graders in reading. Michigan is one of only five states with declines in fourth-grade reading from 2003 to 2015. In that span, the state’s rank in fourth-grade reading plummeted from 28th to 41st.

According to the Education Trust-Midwest report, among 11 states that give tests similar to M-STEP to students, five suffered declines in third-grade reading between 2014-15 and 2016-17. But Michigan had triple the size of decline of any other state. The other six states showed improvements.

‘Doesn’t make sense’

A low third-grade reading proficiency rate in the first year of the M-STEP, in 2014-15, wasn’t unexpected, Arellano said. “Traditionally, proficiency rates fall immediately” when a new test is put into the classroom, “because the tests are harder, and then they go up.”

But Michigan proficiency rates continuing to drop in years two and three of the test “doesn’t make sense,” Arellano said. “That is completely counter to trends of other states.”

That trend is particularly alarming in Michigan because, two school years from now, third-graders who are a year or more behind in reading skills will flunk.

Last year, about one in every 150 third-graders in Michigan were held back. It’s unclear how many will be retained under the new law because cutoff scores haven’t been set and there are retention exemptions. But almost one in three students in 2016-17 had readings scores deemed “not proficient,” the lowest of four scoring categories.

If those numbers hold, that would mean 31,655 third-graders in danger of flunking third grade two years from now. .

Price was the sponsor of that bill, which passed in October 2016.

“My hope is that kids are never held back,” Price told Bridge. “You have kindergarten, first, second and third grades to get kids to read. In my mind, we ought to be at 95 percent proficiency.”

But we aren’t.

More money, better strategies

“Even if we don’t decline any more, we’re talking about most kids of color being retained,” said Arellano. “It’s a good thing that the Legislature made early literacy this huge priority. And I see the urgency, I see teachers trying to do this well. But poor implementation and weak strategies doesn’t move the ball. It just creates great anxiety.”

“The need to get all children reading at grade level by third grade is urgent,” MDE’s DiSessa said. After three years of funding, “Michigan schools are in the early stages of using the state funds to develop reading intervention programs.”

But what those programs look like, and if there are funds to implement those programs, is an open question.

The General Education Leadership Network, a consortium of Michigan education leaders and researchers, published a report, “From Lagging to Leading,” EMBED PDF HERE that lays out a strategy for improving early literacy.

“We have a three-year plan,” said William Miller, executive director of Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators. Miller is s heading up early literacy efforts for the General Education Leadership Network. “(But) what we’re spending is not enough.”

Michigan has spent about $80 million total in the past three years on early literacy. It sounds like a lot of money, but, divided among the state’s third-grade classrooms, it isn’t enough to make a difference, Miller said.

Florida, for example, has had a law that flunks third-graders who are below grade-level in reading. But that state spends three-times more per student on reading intervention help than Michigan.

In 2003, the first year of third-grade reading retention, Florida held back one in seven third-graders; that rate has been cut in half since then.

This school year, Michigan school districts received $210 for every enrolled first-grader to be used for early literacy, no matter their need.  For example,Okemos, where 68 percent of third-graders were deemed proficient in 2016-17, received the same per-student allotment of early reading intervention dollars as Detroit Public Schools where just one-in-10 students were proficient.

Dollars given to intermediate school districts, which oversee individual school districts typically on a countywide basis, are often not enough  to make a difference. In Oakland Intermediate School District, early literacy money this year was able to fund just three part-time reading specialists to spread around 28 school districts and more than 20 charters.

“We know what it takes, but we don’t have the resources,” said Michelle Farah, literacy consultant for Oakland ISD. “And we’re one of the best resourced ISDs in the state. Can you imagine what an ISD in the U.P. (is doing)?”

“We’re in a crisis in early literacy,” Miller said. I don’t care what you want to do with career prep (for older students), if you don’t get this right, it’s not going to work.”