University of Michigan students involved in the Don’t Leave Us Behind Campaign have taken action to advocate against a controversial state reading law.

The legislation, dubbed the “Read by Grade Three Law,” requires Michigan schools to identify students who are struggling with reading and writing to provide additional support with the potential to be held back in third grade. This school year is the first with the retention mandate in effect, requiring students who score below a certain cutoff on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress to be held back.

According to Rackham student Gabriel DellaVecchia, one of the founders of Don’t Leave Us Behind, the campaign has determined that about 5,000 third grade students who would be held back each year under the law. DellaVecchia, who taught with Denver Public Schools before coming to the University, said Colorado and other states have these policies in place, though the retention component is optional. 

“Denver Public Schools, as a district, said they didn’t believe in retention, so they actually had a letter that we could share with families and say, it is the guidance of the district that retention is not the best option to help support your child in reading,” DellaVecchia said. “In my three years of teaching in Colorado, not a single family in my classroom, and as far as I know, not a single family and my school, selected retention for their child.”

The law has drawn controversy since it was passed by former Gov. Rick Snyder and a Republican-controlled state legislature in 2016. While proponents say it sets a standard to ensure students do not fall behind and receive the support they need, critics note research indicating negative psychological and social impacts of retention on children, in addition to the added costs to the government. 

Among the Michigan law’s critics are current Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has advocated repealing it, and Detroit Community School District Superintendent Nicholai Vitti, as well as State Superintendent Michael Rice, who has called it a “bad law.

Though only 5 percent of third graders are expected to be retained under the policy, there have been concerns from Vitti and members of the Don’t Leave Us Behind campaign regarding the varying performance levels across school districts. DCSD, for example, would have had 20 percent of its third graders held back — approximately four times the state average. DellaVecchia said beyond the impacts on students, the law could require schools to make staffing changes based on the number of students being retained.

LSA senior Ariella Meltzer said she originally found the campaign through the Roosevelt Institute and was particularly struck by how clearly the data showed the policy impacting low-income and minority populations in the state.

“What’s really harmful about the law is that it hugely disproportionately affects minority and low-income students in terms of retention,” Meltzer said. “All the research shows that it just has really bad effects all around. And when you combine that with the fact that you’re putting this extra burden on a school district or students that already face an incredible amount of hardships, such as in Detroit or Flint, I literally consider it a racist law. I think that the intention — in terms of getting students to reach, like, proficiency and literacy at an earlier age — is important and that’s something we should be working towards, but the execution of the law is really lacking.”

At least 25 states have similar legislation in place. Under Michigan’s version of the law, there are exemptions, though critics question if these favor those with the resources to obtain them. These “good faith exemptions” include students enrolled in special education with an individualized education plan, limited English with less than three years of instruction in an English language learner program and having been enrolled in their current school for less than two years with evidence they did not have an individual reading improvement plan. 

State Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-District 32, an advocate of the law, did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.

Test scores have shown more than half of Michigan third grade students test below proficient in reading. Those in favor of the policy, like former state Rep. Amanda Price, who sponsored the bill, have said it requires schools to focus on ensuring students can read.

Members of the Don’t Leave Us Behind Campaign point to research demonstrating the negative social and psychological impacts of retainment. For instance, students who are retained are more likely to drop out.

Though the campaign is against the bill in its entirety, DellaVecchia said their current goal is to get an amendment passed changing the retention component to optional. DellaVecchia said they are pushing for this change to allow families and teachers to make the decision rather than the government.

LSA junior Jordan Tyo said the coalition behind the campaign has been growing. The group has been meeting with lawmakers in Lansing, as well as trying to connect with parent-teacher organizations and gain wider name recognition among parents.

While they have had difficulties reaching out to parents, the group has found success in getting the attention of state representatives, who largely ignored them when the campaign began.

“It’s surprising how ill-informed parents are, not being any fault of their own or the school, it’s just that this bill kind of slid in there and, all of a sudden, it’s going to affect, and they still don’t completely know about it,” Tyo said. “It’s a little tedious trying to get in there and trying to expand, but it’s also kind of cool seeing just the grassroots going from hardly getting an answer to meeting with these representatives and really picking up momentum.”

In addition to lobbying policy makers, DellaVecchia said they have been meeting with community groups across the state to educate people on the law.

One roadblock they face is getting an amendment on the table to be voted on. DellaVecchia said the chairs of the House Education Reform Committee and the Senate Education Committees would have to bring the amendment to the floor, though they are not required to do so. DellaVecchia said he would not be surprised if they did not bring the amendment forward.

If they cannot get an amendment through soon, Meltzer said families across the state will bear the consequences as thousands of third graders this year are retained. With this in mind, she said the campaign is in a race against time.

“It is going to be really sad if we can’t get something to change to see the literal thousands of kids that are going to come home with this piece of paper that says your kid is going to be held back,” Meltzer said.

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