State bill blurs line for third-graders failing reading

Fewer than half of third-graders in Michigan showed reading proficiency in the latest tests. Yet the state bills for accountability seem to have every exception except for “the dog ate my homework.” It isn’t really accountability for anyone.

Why draw the line in the sand at third grade? There is an undeniable logic to demanding that schoolchildren show reading proficiency before moving on to the fourth grade.

In the lower grades — first, second, third and now kindergarten — pupils and teachers focus on learning to read because that is the essential tool for learning everything else. After third grade, the focus shifts from learning to read to reading to learn.

In the higher grades, a student needs to be able to pick up a book and learn from it — whether that book contains world history, anatomy or how to weld using inert gases. A student who gets to fourth grade or beyond without that essential foundation of reading skills is set up for inevitable failure.

Fewer than half of Michigan third-graders demonstrated proficiency in the latest statewide testing, though. And that is a big part of why so many people, representing a wide variety of interests — including parents, teachers, school districts and third-party experts — opposed the law-in-the-sand requirement that third-graders not be allowed to advance to the fourth grade without demonstrating grade-level proficiency in reading.

There were other reasons, too. We’ve heard them all before. It would hurt kids’ feelings to be held back. It’s not their fault. It’s their school’s fault. It’s their parents’ fault. It’s not their parents’ fault. They get free breakfast. They don’t get free lunch. It is the backpack giveaways.

To address each of those concerns, lawmakers have reached a deal that blurs that line in the sand. Some are calling it a great day for education. Some are calling it a total retreat. Senate and House bills each passed bills with added exceptions and exemptions.

Because they didn’t match, the bills went to a conference committee to draft a bill that would satisfy both chambers. The only one they left out was the-dog-ate-my-homework.

Perhaps the critics are right. Since nobody is to blame, nobody should be held accountable, particularly and especially the 8- and 9-year-olds who haven’t yet learned to read.

Maybe we need a rule that third-graders can’t advance unless parents show proficiency, teachers demonstrate performance and schools accept responsibility. There could be standardized tests.