Read by Grade 3

John Buford Jr., 8, sits on the lap of his mom, Antquanetta Dawkins, at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Benton Harbor. He and thousands of other third-grade students in Michigan are in the first class subjected to the Read by Grade 3 law, which was approved by lawmakers in 2016, but didn’t go into effect until this school year.

John Buford Jr. of Benton Harbor is 8 years old, wants to join the U.S. Navy when he grows up and loves reading.

Which is a good thing because he, along with thousands of other third-grade students in Michigan, are in the first class to be subjected to the Read by Grade 3 law.

The law states that third-grade students are not allowed to advance to fourth grade if they score a grade or more behind in reading on the Spring 2020 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) state standardized test.

His mother, Antquanetta Dawkins, said she’s not worried about her son, who attends International Academy at Hull on Territorial Road in the Benton Harbor Area Schools district. She said she has emphasized reading with her son since he was a baby.

“Me being a parent, I love my district, but I do not leave education up to the district,” she said. “My son is going into the third grade, but he reads and does math on the fourth- and fifth-grade level. ... When you can go from you reading to them to them reading to you – to see their faces light up when they know they can read – it’s amazing.”

The reading level of Benton Harbor students has been a hot topic, especially since state officials released a proposal in May urging school board trustees to close Benton Harbor High School so the district could focus on raising the test scores of K-8 students.

A statistic used often to justify closure is that only 3 percent of the district’s third-grade students tested as reading at grade level on the Spring 2018 M-STEP.

School board trustees rejected the plan and are in negotiations with state officials to possibly create an advisory committee to develop an operating plan for a viable K-12 education system.

But the 3 percent statistic left some people wondering if that meant that 97 percent of the third-grade BHAS students would have been held back if the new Read by Grade 3 law had been in effect.

No, because the law requires that third-graders be a grade level or more behind in reading to be held back. Students who are less than a grade level behind in reading can advance to the fourth grade, with the law requiring the district to provide them with additional support depending how far behind they are.

On the rise

There is a glimmer of hope for BHAS students in the 2019 M-STEP results, which were released Thursday. The number of third grade students testing as proficient or advanced on the English/Language Arts (ELA) portion rose from 3.5 percent in 2018 to 6 percent in 2019.

It is uncertain how many of those third-graders are reading at grade level because the ELA portion doesn’t correspond with reading level.

For that reason, the Michigan Department of Education came up with special “cut scores” to measure third-grade reading on the M-STEP, as required by the law, said MDE spokesperson William DiSessa.

He said just because students test as being not proficient on the ELA portion of the M-STEP doesn’t mean they are a grade level or more behind in reading.

The Spring 2018 M-STEP results showed that statewide, 31 percent of third-graders tested as not proficient on the ELA portion. But according to MDE, if the law had been in place in 2018 using cut scores, only 5 percent statewide would have been retained, with another 17.5 percent of third-graders requiring additional support as they moved on to fourth grade.

“The whole idea is to get them the help needed to really bring them up to speed before the fourth grade,” DiSessa said. “...Research has shown time and time again that students who are not proficient readers by the third grade have problems academically the rest of their (school) career.”

Benton Harbor Interim Superintendent Patricia Robinson said there’s no doubt that the school district needs to bring up those third-grade test scores. She said some restructuring is happening at International Academy at Hull, where the first- through third-grade students are taught.

In addition, a new English/language arts curriculum, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, was added for all grades the fall of 2018.

Robinson said she isn’t certain how many of the BHAS third-graders would have been held back based on the 2018 M-STEP, if the law had been in place.

The problem

Reading by third grade matters.

That’s when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Studies show that students who aren’t reading on grade level by the third grade tend to fall further and further behind.

The Read by Grade 3 law was passed by state legislators in 2016 in response to a report from the Third-Grade Reading Workgroup created by then-Gov. Rick Snyder in 2015.

“Students not proficient in reading at third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time,” according to the report.

Another study found that students in poverty who are not reading on grade level by the third grade are 13 times less likely to graduate on time.

Without a high school diploma, adults are more likely to “end up in prison, have difficulty finding work, receive lower wages and live in poverty,” with each high school drop out costing the state more than $292,000 in lost revenue and social costs, according to the governor’s report.

And yet, the workgroup found that for the previous 12 years, the reading proficiency of students in Michigan has dropped while almost every other state has seen improvement.

Controversial topic

Even though most people agree that students need to learn to read by third grade, there are disagreements over how to make that happen.

DiSessa said MDE opposed the Read by Grade 3 law when it was first introduced in August 2015. 

“The way it was initially written, there were no exemptions. Just all third-grade students would be held back if they were not proficient in reading (on the M-STEP),” he said. “...We thought it should be done on a case-by-case basis. We thought it should be less punitive and more supportive.”

The initial bill called for the law to go into effect during the 2016-17 school year, with third-graders held back based on the Spring 2017 M-STEP results. A state analysis at the time estimated that as many as 39 percent of third-graders would be retained if the initial bill became law. The normal retention rate of third-graders is less than 1 percent.

Critics said an additional year of instruction for that many students would be costly to the state, with the students carrying the stigma of failure throughout their remaining school years.

The law that gained approval pushed back the start date by three years to give school districts time to get ready. It also has MDE providing literacy coaches to the state’s 56 intermediate school districts and includes several exemptions, including if a student is in special education or is learning how to speak English.

K-3 affected

Even though the law talks about the third grade, it actually starts with kindergarten students.

School districts are required to adopt a screening system to be used three times a year to identify any difficulties, with the initial assessment for students in grades K-3 being done during the first 30 days of school. The M-STEP is a summative test given at the end of the school year, rather than a screening test.

An Individual Reading Improvement Plan (IRIP) is to be created for students with reading problems. Even though students in grades K-3 are assessed, third-graders are the only ones subject to being held back based on the M-STEP.

MDE has put together a “Read by Grade Three – Parent Awareness Toolkit,” which can be found at,4615,7-140-28753_74161-490688--,00.html.

The toolkit includes three videos, facts sheets, posters and early literacy bookmarks in English and Spanish.

Parents need to stand up

As Dawkins prepares to send her son to third grade, she said she’s tired of hearing people blame teachers for their children’s low test scores in the Benton Harbor school district.

“It’s everybody’s fault right now,” she said. “We as parents need to take responsibility for our children and their learning. I’ve always been taught that learning starts at home. Whatever you teach your child to do at home, that’s what they will do on the street.”

Dawkins said she volunteers regularly in the school district, works as a case manager for the men’s shelter at the Benton Harbor Salvation Army and is a full-time student working on her master’s degree in social work.

She said parents need to read with their children an hour every day. Even if they read with their children 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes before bed, she said that would help.

“As parents, we have to step up and basically, take our schools back as far as reading and math because a lot of our children are not doing math on their level,” she said. 

Ready to help

Dawkins attends Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Benton Harbor, where parishioners launched a literacy program this past summer for all children, not just members of the church.

Fellow church member Sharon James, a former trustee on the Benton Harbor school board, said the church plans to extend the literacy program into the school year to help struggling readers. She said details will be announced shortly after the beginning of the school year.

James said she supports Michigan’s Read by Grade 3 law, especially the part requiring school districts to assess students’ reading capabilities three times a year, starting in kindergarten.

“It’s good because a district needs to know where they’re vulnerable in their curriculum,” she said. 

She said the M-STEP results come in too late to help students in the school year they take the test. She said teachers receive the results from the screening tests almost immediately so they can see where their students need more help.

“Internal assessments inform what you need to teach in curriculum in preparation for the state assessment,” she said.

The Benton Harbor school district uses the NWEA assessments three times a year to track students’ progress.

Dawkins said teachers give parents a code so they can see online how their children scored on the NWEA.

“On there, we can see not just their test scores, but we can see their homework,” she said. “We can email the teacher through this website. As parents, we need to start taking more advantage of that. That way we know exactly where our children are instead of waiting until parent/teacher conferences.”

By the time parent/teacher conferences take place, she said their child could have fallen so far behind it’s difficult to catch up.

James said Indiana enacted a similar law a few years ago and as a result, graduation rates have risen.

Contact:, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege