Thousands of kids could have been held back under Michigan's Read by Grade Three law. Just 229 were.

Third Grade Is A Critical Year For Kids—here’s Why
Posted at 7:26 PM, Oct 20, 2021

LANSING, Mich. — Thousands of Michigan students could have been held back based on the state's new third grade reading law, but an MSU study found that only about 200 of them actually were.

The findings have experts raising questions about the equity and efficacy of the law's implementation.

Executive Director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan Robert McCann said 200 students is "simply too many."

"What we would say is we need to re-think this law from the start," McCann said.

Michigan's Read by Grade Three law was passed in 2016 as a way to improve child literacy in Michigan. It says, in part, that students can be held back if they earn low literacy scores on the M-STEP test.

MSU's Education Policy Innovation Collaborative works with the state on education policy research.

Katharine Strunk
Katharine Strunk

"There are multiple components of the law," said Katharine Strunk, faculty director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative. "So, a huge part of the theory of action here is actually that it provides supports and capacity building to schools and districts and ISDs to help them help teachers to teach literacy better. The most controversial part of the law is the retention component of the law."

The retention component went into effect this past school year, making these students the first group to repeat the third grade under the law.

"What we've been able to see is there was a pretty steep trajectory going down in terms of literacy performance for students in Michigan in third grade, and that seems to have stabled off since the onset of the law. So the law is helping students to do better in third grade. That was before the retention component of the law even went into place," Strunk said.

But Strunk said there isn't a lot of evidence that holding kids back improves literacy in the long-run.

"So, there's some evidence that shows in the very short-term students who are retained a year do improve in their literacy, but in the longer term that effect seems to fade and then we do know that it leads to higher rates of drop out, maybe less engagement with school in the long run," Strunk said.

Seventy-one percent of third-graders took the M-STEP this year. About 5 percent of them were eligible for retention and Strunk said, "about 7 percent of students who are eligible are going to be retained."

That is about 229 students out of the roughly 3,500 who were eligible.

So, why weren't the other 3,300 students also held back?

"There were several good-cause exemptions that were baked into the law to allow parents and teachers and superintendents to promote students who they felt should be promoted even if they got a low score on the M-STEP," Strunk said.

McCann said, when the state sent out "what it calls its warning letters that a student met the criteria to be held back under this law, we, along with a number of other organizations across the state strongly encouraged parents to better understand the opportunity they had to get a waiver from that, to say, 'I understand my child is falling behind but I want them to stay at grade level.'"

Strunk said well over half of the good cause exemptions that were granted were at the parent or guardian request.

Types of good cause exemptions granted in 2021
Types of good cause exemptions granted in 2021

"This law was something that we wholeheartedly opposed when it was being created because, the reality is, it's very rarely in the best interest of a student to hold them back a year when what they need is assistance moving forward," McCann said.

The study also showed that retention-eligible students who are Black or come from low-income families were twice as likely to be retained.

Retention and exemption decisions by student race/ethnicity
Retention and exemption decisions by student race/ethnicity

"We need to all be doing a better job of making sure that every student in Michigan has the same opportunities, the same supports moving forward, as we can give them. And, unfortunately if this law is not going to be re-thought or gotten rid of as it should be, we need to at least make sure that we're helping every parent understand the options that their children have," McCann said.

A second study from the MSU group will be released this winter.

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