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Michigan's Controversial "Read-or-Flunk" Bills Under Consideration in the State House

America’s education system is surely embattled. Yet, the increasing popularity of statewide “read-or-flunk” laws have drawn criticism despite the laws’ good intentions. According to some excellent reporting by Bridge Michigan, a “two-bill package [Michigan State] House Bill 5111 and House Bill 5144, is similar to legislation in other states, combines intervention efforts to identify and work with struggling students as early as kindergarten, with a third-grade line in the sand: Score at a ‘proficient’ level or above in reading on a standardized test, or expect to stay in third grade.”

Had the laws already been in effect last year, it’s estimated that 35 percent of third-graders in the state would have been retained, approximately 39,000. Under the current system, only 1000 students had been held back. However, the bills only allow for state funding for pilot programs, which, if successful, leaves the cost of implementation to the individual school districts. In fact, the increased cost of educating the students retained is the main sticking point for those who reject these bills—about $7000 per student.

Yet proponents of the bill say the cost is worth it if results in more literate students. Yet, there are those who don’t think that will be the case either. Critics of the law believe that “flunking” a student will do little to encourage him or her. According to the Bridge report, a number of “academic studies have found that students who are retained in early grades are much more likely to drop out of school before graduation.”

Such as it is, neither option seems ideal. Passing students unable to effectively comprehend their own textbooks is certainly not a good idea. However, flunking students may only exacerbate the problem. If the students aren’t able to pass a reading test because there are no consequences for failure, then perhaps the added fear of failure might be a sufficient motivator. Yet, if it is in fact the system itself that is failing the students, flunking them could serve to drive them away from the practice of learning altogether.


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