Study finds racial, economic disparities in use of Michigan's third-grade reading law

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Across the state, 229 third-graders were slated to repeat the grade under Michigan's controversial third-grade reading law, according to Michigan State University researchers.

Michigan school districts were required to report to the state’s Center for Educational and Performance and Information by Sept. 1 how many third-graders they intended to retain for the new school year, said Katharine Strunk, professor of education policy and faculty director of MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, or EPIC.

Strunk said how many students were actually retained will be determined by reviewing fall enrollment data this winter.

According to the state education department, 3,661 third-graders across the state were flagged for retention because of low reading scores. Only 71.2% of third-grade students took the state reading assessment this year due to challenges with testing in school buildings and COVID safety rules.

Retained students represent 0.2% of all third-grade students in Michigan and account for 6.7% of those who were eligible to repeat third grade, Strunk said.

The report also found disparities in the retention outcomes for eligible students across districts and students, researchers found.

School districts intended to retain a larger proportion of Black students (10%) than students of any other race, Strunk said. Retention-eligible students with economic disadvantages were also more than twice as likely to be retained as their higher-income peers, she said.

Low-performing districts were more than three times as likely to retain eligible students and less likely to grant good cause exemptions due to an individualized education plan or Section 504 Plan, for students with learning disabilities, compared to higher performing districts, Strunk said.

School districts planning to provide fully remote instruction in May retained a larger proportion of eligible students than districts offering other types of instruction, researchers found. Districts which planned to offer in-person instruction were more likely than others to promote students due to an IEP or Section 504 plan.

"As state lawmakers continue to debate whether and how to amend the Read by Grade Three law, they will need to pay attention to the ways in which the law is implemented and potential consequences for certain populations of Michigan students," Strunk said.

In June and July, CEPI sent letters to the homes of more than 3,000 third graders who scored 1252 or lower on the English language arts portion of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP.

According to the analysis by EPIC, more than 75% of districts with at least one student eligible for third-grade retention intended to promote them all to fourth grade.

More than half of all reported good cause exemptions were based on parent requests, researchers said. More than 60% of good cause exemptions for students who do not have a disability were due to parent requests, the report said.

Many Michigan superintendents said they would not enforce the retention portion of the law last school year, saying retention was not good education policy.

Educators along with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state Superintendent Michael Rice have asked state lawmakers to drop the retention portion of the law after students experienced chronic learning disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The retention portion of the law was to be enforced for the first time in the 2019-20 school year, but state assessments that were canceled due to the pandemic delayed it.