For Justin Jennings to arrive where he is today was almost impossible. He entered college reading at a third-grade level. He nearly flunked out.
Today, with four degrees to his name, Jennings is superintendent of Muskegon Public Schools, a job that leaves him facing another nearly impossible situation.
Last year, nearly two out of three Muskegon third-graders were “not proficient” in English Language Arts, the lowest ranking on the state assessment test known as M-STEP. In two years, some third-graders scoring at that level could be held back in their grade, under a state “read-or-flunk” law that goes into effect in 2020.
Muskegon and other districts around the state have poured millions of dollars and countless hours into improving literacy in early elementary students in recent years, only to see overall scores go down. In Muskegon, 60 percent of third graders were not proficient in English Language Arts in 2014-15; last year, it was 64 percent.
That’s more than twice the “not proficient” rate of Michigan as a whole. But even at the state level, three out of 10 third-graders struggle to read and the numbers are trending in the wrong direction.
There is a growing sense of inevitability that tens of thousands of children – many concentrated in Michigan’s urban, low-income school districts – will not meet the third-grade reading standards set for the 2019-2020 school year, despite what appears to be valiant and exhaustive efforts by districts like Muskegon.
Books for preschoolers, literacy coaches and early-reading curriculum haven’t moved the needle, and Jennings worries a law intended to help children succeed may have the opposite effect, because of the negative long-term effects of retaining students.
“There’s more to these students than a test score,” Jennings said.
Bridge Magazine and The Center for Michigan will be in Muskegon Wednesday as part of its Truth Tour, a year-long campaign that’s spreading fact-based reporting on Michigan’s top issues before the Nov. 6 election. The meeting in Muskegon, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the office of United Way of the Lakeshore, 31 E. Clay St., will focus on education.