More than half of Michigan third graders fail in reading

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

With the teeth in Michigan's third grade retention law ready to sink in this school year, results from the state's annual literacy exam remain bleak: nearly 55% of third grade students failed the test with only a slight improvement in scores statewide.

According to 2019 results of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress released on Thursday by the Michigan Department of Education, 54.9% of third graders — or 55,336 students — scored less than proficient on the English language arts test. That's a modest improvement compared with 55.6% last year.

Classmates from left, Sarah Aoude, 10, of Dearborn Heights, Reina Beydoun, 11, of Dearborn and Emad Ali, 11, also of Dearborn, work together to help each other log on to their school tablets during sixth-grade English language arts at Bryant Middle School on Thursday in Dearborn.

Under Michigan's reading and retention law, school officials will have the power to retain struggling third graders this spring if they read a grade level behind on the state’s ELA assessment, which measures reading, writing, listening and language.

State officials say the decision to retain will not be made using performance level rankings from M-STEP, such as "not proficient" or "partially proficient." Rather, Michigan will use a special scoring system to make retention decisions under the state's controversial reading law.

More: Detroit improves reading, math scores across all tested grades

Retention estimates based 2019 test results have not been calculated, MDE officials said this week.

Earlier this year, state education officials estimated that only 5% of third grade students would have been held back under the new scoring system had it been applied to 2018 scores, which had 56,850 of Michigan's third graders scoring less than proficient on the test.

INTERACTIVE:  Check your school's 2019 M-STEP test scores

The latest results add to an increasingly dire educational outlook for Michigan, which has invested more than $100 million in early literacy support since the current tested set of third graders entered kindergarten.

In response to The Detroit News' reporting on the school testing data on Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is fighting a budget battle with Republican lawmakers, tweeted: "This is unacceptable. We have to do better by our kids. The #MIBudget that I proposed will TRIPLE the amount of literacy coaches for our students. It’s time for the legislature to get serious and pass a budget that puts the education of our kids first."

According to analyses of national testing data, Michigan students are performing among the bottom 10% of states. According to 2017 results from National Assessment of Educational Progress, Michigan ranks in the bottom third of states for fourth grade reading and eighth grade math. It's also 43rd in school funding equity.

More: Michigan's top-performing SAT high schools in 2019

On Thursday, state education officials focused on slight gains made in third- and fourth grade ELA scores, saying it was the second straight year of improvement.

“We appreciate the gains made this year in our early grades,” state superintendent Michael Rice said. “Focus and attention on early childhood education and early literacy are beginning to bear fruit, and continued efforts in these areas will keep Michigan moving forward.”

Rice said summative assessments such as the M-STEP are "a snapshot taken at one moment in time and reflect only a very small portion of a student’s education.”

“We are committed to continued improvements to Michigan’s state assessment system that promote student learning and provide meaningful information for educators and parents,” he said.

The M-STEP; the SAT, the college entrance exam taken by 11th graders; and the PSAT, a test for eighth graders in reading and math that replaced the M-STEP, were given to students in the spring.

In statewide results across the board:

  • Reading proficiency scores dropped for students in grades 5 and 7 by .3 percentage points to 46.2% and 0.7 percentage points to 42.7%, respectively. Scores went up in grades 4 and 6 by 0.8 percentage points and 0.3 percentage points respectively.
  • Statewide, math scores on the M-STEP increased by 1 percentage point for third grade and 0.5% for grades 5 and 6. Scores declined 0.2 percentage points in grade 4 and students in grade 7 showing no change.
  • On the PSAT test for eighth graders, 61.9% passed the reading portion, the only group on the state exam to exceed the 50% mark for passing a test. On the PSAT math test, 41.4% passed.
  • The worst results came in social studies. Michigan saw drops in scores across all grade levels tested: 5, 8 and 11. Only 17.4% of fifth-graders and 28% of eighth-graders passed the social studies test. That's compared with 18.3% for fifth graders and 29.3% for eighth graders last year. Eleventh graders scored the highest at 46.6%.

Science scores from the M-STEP were not part of the data release. That's because state education officials announced last year they are withholding the public release of science scores for two years because the exam is a sample test that does not yet measure student proficiency. Scores should return with the 2020 test results.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s 11th grade SAT average score dropped to 985.1 compared with 1000.1 last year, and the college-ready percentage dropped to 55.3% compared with 57.8% last year.

Fatima Alzihairy, 11, of Dearborn, raises her hand to ask a question during sixth-grade math class at Bryant Middle School on Thursday.

SAT scores in evidence-based reading and writing and mathematics showed declines this year. In English language arts, 55.3% of students reached proficiency. In mathematics, 36.3% of students reached proficiency. The decline in SAT scores mirrors similar drops in other states, according to the College Board.

Joshua M. Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, said observers should look at the potential of bright spots.

That includes the impact the new state superintendent will have on education and the continued new leadership in Detroit where students improved their test scores in reading and math across all tested grades, in some cases with double-digit growth.

“It looks about the same as it has for a while," Cowen said of the 2019 scores. "That doesn’t mean there is no possibility for improvement.  At the same time, there is some evidence — in Detroit — that improvement is happening.”

Cowen is part of an MSU research team who said if Michigan’s controversial Read by Grade 3 law went into effect this past school year, an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 students would be retained.

Brian Gutman, director of external relations at the nonpartisan research and advocacy organization the Education Trust-Midwest, said this data on student learning highlights the need for prompt action to improve learning for all students, with a particular focus on historically underserved student groups.

Despite low performance across all student groups, wide gaps persist between students of color and their white peers as well as between students from low-income families and their higher-income peers, Gutman said.

In every tested grade in English language arts, the statewide proficiency rate for white students was at least 29% higher than for African-American students and at least 17% higher than for Latino students, Gutman said.

“Michigan’s continued low performance on key measures of student learning should trouble us all,” Gutman said. “But more importantly, it should be a call to action at every level. This means equitable investment in evidence-based practice, improved classroom instruction, and more effective collaboration between schools, parents and communities.”

High, low reading performers in Michigan

Here’s a snapshot of the largest Michigan school districts that have the highest and lowest number of third grade students considered proficient in English language arts. Only districts with at least 100 third graders are included.


  1. Byron Center Public Schools, Kent County: 88.6
  2. Spring Lake Public Schools, Ottawa County: 86
  3. East Grand Rapids Public Schools, Kent County: 84.7
  4. Okemos Public Schools, Okemos, Ingham County: 77.3
  5. DeWitt Public Schools, DeWitt, Clinton County: 75.2


  1. Benton Harbor Area Schools, Berrien County: 5.6
  2. Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, Wayne County: 8.9
  3. Old Redford Academy (Detroit), Wayne County: 9.2
  4. Westwood Community School District (Dearborn Heights), Wayne County: 9.6
  5. Ypsilanti Community Schools, Washtenaw County: 10.3

Lead-up to the third grade reading law

A majority of Michigan school districts focused on resources, funding and staff on improving literacy among K-3 students for the last three years as they waited for the retention portion of the new law to kick in.

The law required districts to allocate literacy coaches to assist teachers, a reading assessment given to students several times a year to help identify struggling readers and reading intervention programs for struggling students.

Some districts already had coaches in places, others had to find them. Districts implemented individualized reading improvement plans for each struggling child, brought in consultants to help teachers and met with parents at conferences when more interventions were needed.

Small class sizes in grades K-2, professional development for every adult in school and close monitoring of students are among the key strategies of successful school districts in Michigan where third graders performed in the top five scores in English language arts on the state assessment.

In the Troy School District in Oakland County, the district has increased professional development for all adults by 100%, going from two days to eight, with a focus for K-5 teachers on literacy.

In Troy, 74% of third graders passed the test this year, compared with 72.8% last year. Superintendent Rich Machesky said the district's success stems from a multi-tiered system of supports in the classroom.

"That has allowed us to zero in on every student and identify what every student has in terms of potential gaps in earning and be purposeful in filling those gaps and bring intervention for those students," Machesky said.

The district has also worked to have assessments in place that are teacher-driven rather than computer-generated, Machesky said.

"We don’t use computer-generated assessments. We believe the teacher should be assessing students," he said.

Many districts are expecting exemptions will allow them to reduce the number of retained third graders.

Exemptions include students with special education accommodations, students with less than three years of instruction in English language learning programs, students who show grade level proficiency through a portfolio of work and students who perform at grade level on a state-approved alternative assessment.

Amanda Price, chairwoman of the Governor’s PreK-12 Literacy Commission and architect of the third grade reading law, said after last year's incremental improvement in third grade reading scores, she was not surprised this year's gains were again modest.

"It’s a lot of work for people to realize they have problem," Price said. "It’s a long-term issue that needs a lot of attention. I don’t think it needs a lot of time, but it does need a certain amount to restructure a system that doesn't work well."

Whitmer's budget request to triple literacy coaches is up against a capacity issue, Price said, especially among districts who can't find or attract talent.

"You still need to train literacy coaches and get them into the classroom, and that takes time," Price said. "Training literacy teachers is not for the kiddos, it's helping the teachers learn how to teach reading better."

In Novi Community Schools, 70.1% of third graders passed the ELA test. Novi superintendent Steve Matthews said he believe that is a sold score considering 18% of students in the district are English language learners.

"All schools have an ELL teacher who works with a classroom teacher," Matthews said. "We have literacy coaches at each building to support teachers and students. They work individually. We think those things and those investments are having a payoff and an impact."

Looking ahead to the new school year when a more thorough retention screening become a requirement, Matthews said the district will continue on the same path as it has the last several years.

"In Novi, we believe we have implemented a sound program," Matthews said. "We will continue to do that. We think it's working."

'Nobody is doing good'

In Benton Harbor, which has been under pressure by the state to close its high schools and convert its district to a K-8, third graders slightly improved their scores in reading and math, but the average SAT score declined.

In third grade reading, only 5.6% of student passed the test in Benton Harbor Area Schools, compared with less than 5% last year. In third grade math, 6.3% passed the test, compared with less than 5% last year.

The district's average SAT score declined to 707.9 compared to 765 last year. That means less than 5% are college-ready, according to the state.

Joseph Taylor, vice president of the Benton Harbor school board, said people assumed the worst about the southwest Michigan school district when Whitmer cited low test scores among several reasons to close its high schools.

"They looked at old data from the state," Taylor said. "No one should have jumped the gun. They should have waited."

While scores improved in the district, proficient rates remain among the lowest in the state. Taylor said the entire state is not doing well in terms of its education systems.

"Nobody is doing good. State of Michigan is abysmal," Taylor said. "We need to stop pointing fingers at one and point at the entire state."

Michigan's test history

Michigan has a history of changing the state assessments it gives public school students, prompting some to criticize how that disrupts their ability to analyze progress or regression in schools.

In the 2014-15 school year, Michigan replaced the 44-year-old Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test with the M-STEP. Students in Michigan are scheduled to take the M-STEP every spring through 2021 in grades 3-8 and 11. 

In 2015, the state dumped the ACT and required 11th graders to take the SAT. In 2019, the state required all eighth graders to take the PSAT instead of the MSTEP in math and reading.

Matthews with Novi Community Schools said the district's high SAT score average is the result of creating consistent classroom experiences for high schoolers in core areas such as chemistry.

"So chemistry at the high school is the same regardless of who teaches it," Matthews said. "We spent a lot of time with teachers so they can talk to other teachers, decide on key outcomes and make sure classrooms have resources so a student's experience is similar."

"That helps us have quality control over teaching and learning."

The 2018 and 2019 assessments are the first time during the past five years in which there is a "relatively clean comparison" across years for M-STEP and SAT, state deputy superintendent Venessa Keesler said.

“Year-to-year comparisons of state assessment results can be problematic,” Keesler said. “Changes and systematic improvements to Michigan’s state assessment system have been made each year since the M-STEP began in 2015, which make it difficult to make data comparisons or interpret long-term data trends.”

Gary Niehaus, superintendent of the Grosse Pointes' school district, said he is satisfied with the district's PSAT results and likes the switch to the test over the MSTEP for math and reading for eighth graders because the testing company provides materials to teachers that allows them to identify how to better support students. That happened much slower with the M-STEP.

"It’s a better test," Niehaus said. "It connects to the high school that is why we switched. It gives us data on our kids that we can implement through their high school years."