Third Grade Flunk Laws–and (Un)intended Consequences

Like many states, Michigan has a Third Grade Mandatory Retention law for students who are not reading at grade level in the statewide assessments. And like most states, the law is riddled with exceptions, loopholes and what you might call pre-existing conditions. In other words, well-connected parents who don’t want their child who struggles with reading to fail the third grade will be able to wiggle out of it. If you’re poor or attending a ‘failing’ school, you’re pretty much toast if your reading skills (or test-taking skills) are subpar–when you’re eight years old.

Much of the critique around ‘3rd grade flunk’ legislation centers on the damage done to kids by being forced to repeat a grade, the financial burden on schools as they are compelled to provide an additional year of instruction to large segments of their elementary population, and the complete lack of proof that these laws work. If our goal is higher rates of genuine literacy, rather than punishing schools and vulnerable students, there are better ways to get there.

We could begin by noting that Finland, a perennial head-of-list country when it comes to international comparisons of literacy accomplishment, does not begin formal reading instruction until students are seven years of age—roughly second grade—because they believe that’s when a majority of students are developmentally ready to handle the complex intellectual tasks of phonemic awareness, decoding and making meaning of the symbols on the page. By age nine—4th grade—Finnish students are ahead of ours, even though our 4th graders have been subjected to formal reading instruction for five years at that point.

There’s something seriously wrong here.

Now we are witnessing the other consequences of the Third Grade Threat—pushing inappropriate instruction down to kindergarten, as anxious districts fear that students who are not reading at grade level (a murky goal, to begin with) will embarrass the district when letters go out to parents of third graders who are supposed to be retained. Because it’s the law.

Who’s to blame when students lag behind (arbitrary) literacy benchmarks, for whatever reason, from learning in a second language, an identified disability or merely being a late-bloomer? Teachers, of course.

Early on, much of the angst was directed at ‘those districts’—the ones where high numbers of students lived in poverty, the districts where 40% of kids weren’t reading at grade level, and teachers were presumed to be less-than (an absolute fallacy, by the way). But the dread over having to face public wrath around flunking 8-year olds has spread to alpha districts.

A disgruntled kindergarten teacher in Ann Arbor shared a memo that was sent to KDG teachers in Ann Arbor two days ago. It appears, in its entirety, including misspellings and grammatical errors, below. Ann Arbor is a large, well-regarded district with a diverse population that includes children from well-educated families as well as pockets of poverty. Most of its schools are highly ranked by the State Department of Education, and a couple of its neighborhood schools post test scores lower than the state average.

But Ann Arbor kindergarten teachers, it seems, are now part of a get-tough literacy accountability pipeline, where their personal beliefs about how children learn emphatically do not matter, and their coaches and administrators are taking them to task, including a ominously worded reminder that their instruction could and will be observed at any time.

They are reminded that ‘large’ numbers of kids—kindergartners, remember, three years before the hatchet falls—are failing.  And the boss wants to know why. In writing. Including a response to the question of how teachers are ‘demonstrating rigor’ in their ELA instruction.

It’s a crackdown, all right: ‘Student progress begins and ends with you. We cannot let borderline students get a pass.’

If this is happening in Ann Arbor—not a perfect district, but one that has demonstrated some progressive ideas and academic successes—how has this law negatively impacted reading instruction in other districts?

Are these unintended consequences? Or is this what the Third Grade Flunk law was supposed to do all along—wrest control of reading instruction from professional teachers?

Memo of February 6 to kindergarten teachers in Ann Arbor (italics are mine):

“Good afternoon K teachers,

I hope that you all had a wonderful day off and stayed off of the slippery roads. The purpose of this email is to get the conversation started with you all ASAP and for us to better understand where are (sic) K students are and how we are going to ensure their success. In hopes for us to get the full picture of what we need to look at there are several questions and items that we need more information from you by Friday, February 8, 2019. (Note: email sent February 6.)

  1. Please share with XX and I your reading groups (specifically name of students, days/times you meet with them and for how long). When we read them, these schedules should reflect at least 4-5 days a week with your lowest (below grade level) readers and fewer days for those at or above target. Please note that we may pop in during the time you give to see how a few friends are doing.
  2. Please provide XX and I with a hard copy of your most current benchmark assessment that helped you to determine reading groups.
  3. Questions that require honest answers…

How many of your kids be ready to read for 1st grade teachers at a level “E” by the beginning of next year? Please list them.

What literacy supports and strategies have you been offering students and families that go beyond the classroom?

What do you believe is your responsibility to students in the area of ELA?

This year we had a very LARGE number of students falling significantly below grade level.
What was the underlying cause for this last year? 
What have you changed about your practice this year so that this does not happen again?
How are you demonstrating rigor with in your ELA practice?

As we dive into how our youngest and brightest look at this point, we must also remember that our personal views and opinions around developmental appropriateness may not match what the district is asking you to achieve. Nonetheless, each of you is still responsible for meeting and achieving the grade level outcomes set out by the district. Please remember that student progress and success begins and ends with you.

In addition, growth data is dependent on the level of success student have. As you go into the next round of evaluations do you have the evidence and data that will accurately demonstrate the appropriate reading growth. This year we will not be using “the standard error of deviation”, either students have made the necessary growth or they have not. With the NEW THIRD GRADE READING LAW we can not let borderline kids get a pass. These student will have to securely demonstrate success. (Caps not in original email.)

Thank you in advance for you thoughtful responses and speediness in getting this information to us. We will be setting up a mandatory meeting to discuss these points further for sometime next week. We will have XX join us as our Literacy Expert.





  1. Ironic that the writer of this letter demonstrated poor literacy skills, along with a complete lack of understanding regarding how young children learn. I feel sorry for the families, students, and teachers in that school district.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. The reality is that this bill goes into effect NEXT YEAR. I would love to see a teacher walk out/strike in ALL public schools during the month of May (M-Step Testing time). Teachers must disrupt the system to shine light on this terrible and tragic bill and get it abolished. Also, SHAME to the letter writer above. That person has no right to hold any position of power in any school district in Michigan.

    Liked by 1 person


    1. The fact that the bill goes into effect next year–and won’t impact kindergartners until ’24-25–makes this worse. Ramping up the text anxiety with 5-yr olds and their teachers is the worst kind of pedagogy.

      I agree that disrupting the system is the ultimate change mechanism. But I wonder if teachers should be expected to do this. Michigan teachers have had their unions systemically suppressed by the state government, in 2013, and Detroit teachers who walked out to protest disgusting school conditions were threatened and punished by the state legislature. In Michigan, striking has been associated with better pay and working conditions, not inane and ineffective laws. Given all the media support for the 3rd grade flunk laws, it would be easy to paint a teacher strike over this law as trying to avoid accountability.

      I think it is the responsibility of parents and School Boards to protest this. One of the reasons I reprinted the memo to kindergarten teachers is because Ann Arbor really IS an alpha district–pushback from them might make legislators re-think the ultimate consequences of this law. When well-educated and well-connected parents decide the law harms kids, and start talking back to the Legislature, we might get some movement.



  3. And then comes the consequence of having children who have been retained, mis-identified as needing special assistance, etc. for 1,2 or more years placed in a classroom of 8 year olds. That placement is totally inappropriate physically, mentally and emotionally. It creates problems for the first time third grade students, and is truly demoralizing for those children stuck back with the younger children. Many quit trying and leave ASAP, or create disturbances to avoid the embarrassment.

    Liked by 1 person


    1. All of what you say is absolutely true. I wrote the blog to show an additional consequence of this– inappropriate instruction for kids WAY too early in the nascent journey to literacy. Lots of kids who will ‘catch up,’ test-wise, will be pressured to move faster than their natural developmental process.



    1. In this circumstance? Beats me. I think what she’s trying to say is that Ann Arbor will no longer accept the fact that there is often no difference between the kid who’s one point over the (arbitrary) cutoff and the kid who’s one point under that line.



  4. For an administrator to give only one or two days to list student levels verified by support as well as tasking the teachers with providing data of times spent on reading, and expecting time to reflect in day to day classrooms with a threat of observation is arrogant. For an administrator to have such misunderstandings of grammar and spelling (our/are) in an email is appalling and unprofessional.

    Liked by 1 person


  5. Kudos to you, Nancy, for this revealing post for the Education Week audience and beyond. There is ample evidence in this piece that Michigan is on the wrong track and all the negativity does seem justified in the comments. There is a silver lining however. These problems can be fixed. I can recommend two books that could set the uninformed and misguided supervisor, battered kindergarten teachers, and the state of beginning reading education in Michigan on track. The first is just out this month and bridges the gap between the science of reading and what’s happening in classrooms and districts such as Ann Arbor. Based on the latest research in cognitive psychology and neuroimaging my co-author—highly respected Canadian cognitive psychologist Gene Ouellette—and I show what’s wrong with beginning reading instruction, why it’s wrong, and in practical ways that teachers can understand how to fix it. For example you’ll learn that an expectation that the reading brain should be developed by grade three, and all the consequences of third grade testing and grade flunk laws are fixable. In fact, according to the science of reading most children should learn to reading independently with grade level proficiency by the end of first grade or beginning second grade. Gene and I give much needed insights about what brain research tells us about whole language and phonics-first movements but more importantly we provide evidence-based and practical tools to help both teachers and supervisors understand what works, what doesn’t, and why. This book entitled Brain Words: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching (Stenhouse, 2019) is hot off the press.

    The second book is for any kindergarten or first grade teacher that needs “honest” answers to the supervisor’s questions regarding benchmark assessments, grouping and children’s levels, and what the classroom should look like if the teacher is implementing best practices. (As it turns out reading and writing are two sides of the same coin in the child’s brain. Writing from the first day of kindergarten (starting even with kids who cannot yet write their name) is a proven pathway to development of the reading brain and improving end of first grade reading scores. It’s about integrating reading and writing in the child’s brain. The book is Kid Writing in the 21st Century (Hameray Publishers, 2017) written by two 30-some-year veteran PhD and M Ed kindergarten teachers who partnered with a 40-some-year reading researcher (me) and interpreted beginning literacy in ways that are practical, joyful, both teacher and child friendly, and successful.

    So the post is correct, something is seriously wrong here. The state of reading education in Michigan and in America is not good. But if we bridge the current gap between the science of reading and proven best practices in the classroom beginning reading and writing can be fixed in ways that are joyful and congenial to both children and teachers. I invite your readers to check out these two groundbreaking books.



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