By COLLIN KRIZMANICH
Capital News Service
LANSING — Education professors in Michigan praise Gov. Rick Snyder’s push to improve third graders’ reading skills, but they caution against adding new tests or retaining struggling students.
Snyder’s 2016 budget calls for $48 million to get students reading at grade level by third grade, which means focusing on reading proficiency when they’re younger.
“I’m certainly very pleased that the governor has proposed additional funding for early reading instruction,” said Gary Troia, an associate professor at Michigan State University who studies teacher professional development in literacy.
The transition from third to fourth grade is particularly crucial in a student’s development of learning abilities, Troia said.
“After third grade there’s a fundamental shift in instruction,” he said. “Students are no longer being taught how to read as much as they are using reading to gain content and knowledge.”
This shift means students who are not proficient readers when entering fourth grade tend to struggle in both the short and long term, Troia said.
Reading proficiency among fourth graders is a problem across the country. Michigan ranks 34th among states, with more than 70 percent of fourth graders reading below proficiency standards, according to a study funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropy dedicated to children’s issues.
Snyder’s plan includes educating parents on child development, expanding early childhood education for low-income families, increasing resources and training for teachers and investing in literacy coaches.
Some experts believe that literacy coaches, who have extra training and specialization in reading instruction, can be an especially effective tool in increasing reading proficiency.
Teaching kids how to read is a big part of what elementary teachers have to do, but they also have to teach all other subjects, said Robert Floden, a professor at Michigan State University whose studies teacher education.
Troia said providing funding to train literacy specialists can help.
Although they are broadly supportive, some experts are concerned about the possibility of standardized assessment tests for kindergartners.
“We certainly don’t want more standardized testing,” Troia said. “Especially with very young children who are unlikely to even know how to take a test like that.”
“Additional assessment probably isn’t the best investment of dollars to make sure these things are working,” Floden said.
In states such as Florida and Oklahoma that have passed similar plans, a primary component is a retention test for students. If a third grade students fails the retention test, they can be held back and required to repeat third grade.
Legislation introduced in the last legislative session included a retention test, so experts are eager to express their objection to the idea.
No education expert or classroom teacher he knows thinks a high stakes retention test is a good idea, said Michael Addonizio, an education professor at Wayne State University.
Another concern among experts is the possibility of making students repeat third grade if they do not pass a reading comprehension test. Other states that have implemented similar reading initiatives have included retention as a part of the plan.
“It appeals to people because they think this is a way of ensuring kids aren’t just passed along without learning anything,” Floden said. “While the students do better the next year, the long term outcomes are on average much worse.”
Studies show that students who are held back in the third grade are up to 11 times more likely to drop out of school, Troia said.
By COLLIN KRIZMANICH