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Michigan law aims to make sure kids can proficiently read by 3rd grade

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BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- As a new school year is set to begin, a new law is set to go into effect across the state of Michigan.

The law requires kids in grade three to be held back if they’re a grade level or more behind in reading.

“If you can’t read, you’re not gonna advance much. It’s going to be very frustrating and difficult to do,” said former Benton Harbor teacher Elizabeth Simmons.

“Students learn to read by grade three typically, and then after that the rest of their academic careers they read to learn,” explained Michigan Department of Education Spokesperson William DiSessa.

In 2016, the Michigan Legislature passed the “Read by Grade 3” law, and it goes into effect this school year statewide.

A student’s reading capability will be evaluated by the English Language Arts portion of the require M-STEP, a required test taken by children in the spring.

Third graders will be identified as not proficient, partially proficient, proficient and advanced.

“If you are not proficient then you are given resources and support with the idea of trying to make you proficient by the end of third grade,” said DiSessa.

Students who are not proficient by the end of spring have the possibility of being retained.

Benton Harbor Area Schools is a local district that could be greatly impacted by the law.

According to Michigan School Data, in the 2017- 2018 school year, less than five percent of Benton Harbor Area Schools third graders were proficient on the ELA portion of M-STEP.

A breakdown of data shows that just five students were proficient, 26 were partially proficient and 112 were not proficient.

According to the state, not proficient means that a student’s performance shows minimal understanding and application of the grade level expectations.

“That makes me sad because when I was teaching, my kindergartners left me reading,” said Simmons.

Elizabeth Simmons was a teacher in Benton Harbor for 35 years, now she is the coordinator of a free summer reading program for kids at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church. 

“For a minute I had a few older kids and I made them write what they wanted to be what they got older. I was amazed at what they couldn’t do – not what they could do. I was amazed and that bothered me,” she said.

Students who are not proficient will be given Individualized Reading Improvement Plan and other resources.

“Hopefully with specific supports and resources given under the law, there will be more students who are proficient moving forward,” explained DiSessa.

From an educator perspective, Simmons says she doesn’t quite know what to think of the law.

“I’m not saying it’s all good or all bad, it’s just that I think we’re going to have to start a little earlier,” said the retired teacher.

But she is sure of one thing.

“The adults are gonna have to put forth more effort into seeing that our children are educated,” she said.

The Michigan Department of Education says that the original bill automatically retained all students, but the department thought that it should be done on a case by case basis. Now, the law has a “Good Cause” Exemption Process to allow a student to be promoted to the 4th grade.

Officials say, ultimately, the Superintendent of a district gets the final say to decide if a child is held back.

ABC57 reached out to BHAS officials for comment, but did not hear back.

You can learn more about the law and the process of how and why a child would be retained here.

You can donate to Simmon’s free reading program at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Benton Harbor.

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