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Schools screen for “reading deficiencies" to flag 3rd graders at risk of being held back

Johnny McClung via Unsplash

Kelly Mickel is alone, in her office, at four p.m. on a Tuesday.


It’s a freaking miracle. 


Most days, the principal at Erickson Elementary in Ypsilanti barely gets a moment to breathe, much less eat lunch (unless she’s eating a school lunch with a student, “either as a reward or sometimes as a consequence”). Usually, lunch is a piece of fruit, or something from home that sits on her desk most of the afternoon.


This week, Mickel knows that by Friday, every single one of her kindergarteners, first, second and third graders need to have taken a “diagnostic reading assessment,” according to the state’s “Read by Grade 3” law.  

“Most of the students in our building have completed it, and we’re working to get the make-ups done at this point,” Mickel says. “They’re doing the fall right now, and then they’ll do a winter test, and a spring test. And we’ll be looking at their growth, from fall to spring.”

The theory: flag the kids at-risk early, so there’s time to turn it around

Screening for “reading deficiencies” within the first 30 days of the school year is just one of the added layers of logistics, legal requirements, professional development, staffing assignments and data collection mandated by the law. Most of those changes, including the extra testing, were implemented over the last three years, after the law passed in 2016. 

But this is the first year the law’s most controversial element goes into effect: starting in the spring, any third grader who is more than a year behind grade-level in reading, could have to repeat the third grade. 

At least, that’s the theory. On the most recent state test, 54% of Michigan third graders scored below the “proficient” level in reading. But this spring, the state set the cut-off score for holding a student back, below what's actually considered “proficient.” Then, there’s a laundry list of exemptions in the law, including one that allows superintendents to give a  “good cause” exemption, which parents can request. Experts estimate some 2,000 to 5,000 third graders could be eligible to be held back under the law. But the real number will depend on how many districts opt to use those exemptions to pass most kids on to 4th grade anyway.

So the idea behind these deficiency screenings is to flag the struggling kids early, months before they’d face the potential of flunking. For those struggling kids, the law requires schools to create a reading intervention plan, a.k.a. an “Individual Reading Instruction Plan,” or IRIP. (It's pronounced EYE-rip, because what education really needs is more acronyms. Also, some people call it an Individual Reading Improvement Plan.) 

“We have a lot of students [who qualify to be] on IRIPs, quite frankly,” Mickel says. Schools also have to notify their parents and get them to sign off on those plans, in hopes of creating wrap-around help for the kid.

"When parents receive the notice...they express concern right away. 'What does this mean for my child? What does this look like for them this year, and moving forward?'"

“We get mixed messages from parents,” Mickel says. “Generally, when parents receive the notice, [and if they] pay attention to the notice, they express concern right away. You know, ‘What does this mean for my child? What does this look like for them this year, and moving forward?’ So over the past two years, we have tried really hard to create a parent literacy support-type night. And we invite all the families of students who have IRIPs.”

There’s a meal, and once everyone’s fed and relaxed a bit, “we take the time to go through what the IRIP document is, what does it mean, and go over the law a little bit,” Mickel says. “And then we really tend to focus on building up some strategies that families can put in place at home.” 

How schools handle that sensitive messaging - your kid is struggling, but don’t freak out - is critical to whether these plans can succeed. Brandy Archer is the literacy manager at the Michigan Department of Education. “This whole part of the law is to say, it’s not on the school alone, it’s not on the family alone. It’s on everybody to help support the child. So I can get behind that, totally...that as soon as there’s an issue, we notify the family so they can become part of what the solution is.”  

The plan sounds good. Now teachers just need someone to invent more hours in the day. 

“Really, the concern [teachers] have mostly is the paperwork part of it,” Mickel says. “It’s like, ‘I have to complete this plan in writing, and then how do we get parents’ signatures if I can’t access a parent for whatever reason, because their work schedule might be off?’ Or we sent it home in a backpack, and it just never came back, because the parent has a different schedule than, you know, works with the school schedule.

“So those are the biggest challenges. Which is why I try to build in time, like during our staff meeting time...to give them a chance to work on it as a team. Because it’s more than just a classroom teacher involved in an IRIP.” 

And that’s also a big part of the law’s intention: don’t just put this on the classroom teacher. Bring in reading specialists to work with small groups of students, and literacy coaches who train teachers across the school, district, or intermediate school district (depending on how many resources the school gets). Schools like Erickson also try to loop in a support staffer called a Title I interventionist. (Title I is the federal assistance program for schools with a large concentration of low-income students.) 

Trying to get the whole team time to meet, much less drilling down on each student’s situation, figuring out the best plan, and then putting it into practice in the classroom, is no small feat, says Heather Phelps, a K-3 literacy coach with the Saginaw Intermediate School District.

“To do that well, it means collaboration, and talking about, ‘What does the student data say?’  You need time to assess students...and what does that indicate, and how can we put a plan together? It’s a resource thing. You need that time resource, that human resource, to come together and have the time to really dig in deep into that data and consider, what do we do to meet the student’s needs?”

When it works, Phelps says, it’s worth it. 

“We know that those Individual Reading Improvement Plans have benefitted our students. Because there’s true collaboration in a lot of the buildings around those conversations. And really digging into, how do we support those students?” Phelps says. “There have been supports all along for those [students] that struggle. But I feel like, it put another layer of focus on that collaboration piece.” 

But each district has to invent its own wheel, hoping it’s the right kind of wheel

Several educators say there’s another big time suck: figuring out what, exactly, these intervention plans are supposed to look like, both on paper and in practice. Do it wrong, and you’re not in compliance with the law. 

Melissa Usiak is an assistant professor at Michigan State University in K-12 education administration, which means she had an ear to the ground when principals and superintendents started wringing their hands about this. 

“We also started to hear, as this 3rd grade reading bill came into existence, this angst and concern and just, overwhelming nature of the task of developing the IRIP,” Usiak says. “And we just started to hear this cry for a structure in which to create this plan for individual students.”

So she and colleague Molly Funk took a stab at it. They created a template IRIP, as well as a “companion document” they hope will help make it easier for educators to go beyond just checking off the legal requirements. There are “guiding questions” like, “What are some themes that I am noticing as I reflect on this student’s progress?” Or, “As a result of the instruction provided to the student and the results of the instructional plan, what does this tell me about where this student needs to go next?”

But in terms of what schools are actually doing, it’s all over the place, Usiak says. 

"A lot of focus was on the tool, and not the process. And a lot of lost opportunities to have...dialogues around children."

“I see a lot of variance from school to school, and district to district. And that was really unfortunate, that there wasn’t a common approach and maybe a common format, plan, structure,” she says. “So there’s a lot of time and energy put around, ‘What does it look like?’ So a lot of focus was on the tool, and not the process. And a lot of lost opportunities to have...dialogues around children.”

For Kelly Mickel, the principal at Erickson Elementary in Ypsilanti, that’s frustrating.

“There’s not like, a set form for completing the IRIP. And I think that if we had something more set and established, that was clear and succinct, that would help. But I think that we’re operating in a cycle where, if our form’s not super effective, how do we know that? We don’t. So having some more guidance as far as the logistical parts of things, and the systems operations of it, I think would really help to having us work smarter and not harder,” Mickel says. 

“...To me, if this is a state law being mandated, then they should provide the vehicles for getting it done.”

Brandy Archer, MDE’s literacy manager, says the state wanted every school to have the flexibility to do what works for them.  

“The MDE was committed to messaging that the IRIP process is the most important part of this aspect of the law, much more than the tool. Identifying and determining the literacy need and specific learning goals for the child within the context of the school’s instructional model and literacy supports offered by the district vary so widely across the state. With that said, some local ISDs and districts have created IRIP tools that work for their own system. These are available for others to use. In addition the state is working in partnership to create an on-line platform within the data hubs to connect local data and the IRIP process.”

But if the “Read by Grade 3” law is what Michigan’s mandating, then Principal Kelly Mickel says her school is going to make the most of it. So at Erickson, every single kid gets an IRIP, regardless of whether they’re struggling or not. And every student - even the 4th and 5th graders - takes that initial screening test, so the school has individual data they can dig into. 

“We can’t address the achievement issue, if we don’t have a system in place to do it,” she says. “So, since the 3rd grade reading law came about, we’ve slowly worked together as a team to meet the requirements - but not just meet it; be as effective as possible in meeting it. So it’s a work in progress, but I think that systems approach is the way it has to be done. Otherwise, it’s the concept of just putting a band aid on something: it’s not going to really change anything.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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