Unprecedented study of 3,000 Michigan public school buildings set to launch in summer

$4.9M grant lets researcher study state's reading law

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Using a $4.9 million grant, education researchers from Michigan will be closely evaluating the state's controversial third-grade reading law which goes into effect next school year.

The Michigan Education Research Institute will use a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to study how the law is being implemented and how it affects third-grade students retained by schools for reading more than a grade level behind on the state assessment.

Using a $4.9 million grant, education researchers from Michigan will be closely evaluating the state's controversial third-grade reading law which goes into effect next school year.

The institute is a partnership between Michigan State University, University of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Education and the state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information.

Katharine Strunk, a principal investigator on the project and professor of education policy at Michigan State University, said the team will study how the law affects students retained after third grade, as well as students who move to fourth grade but are identified to receive additional support, assessing how their reading scores change and whether they change schools.

"This law will impact students and educators in every single school and district across the state," Strunk said. "We are thrilled to have the opportunity to study how it is being implemented and the ways in which it is affecting educators and learners."

How schools and districts across the state implement provisions of the law, including the ability to request waivers, will also be closely monitored. Along with surveys of teachers and administrators, the team plans to conduct classroom observations to better understand changes in literacy practices used by K-3 teachers.

The researchers expect their analysis to draw from new sources of data, including the collection of regular literacy assessments required within schools starting in kindergarten but not shared before at the state level.

A recent study suggests Michigan's reading may retain a larger percentage of black students, students with disabilities, students from low-performing schools and students from charter schools.

The Education Policy Innovation Collaborative released a study last month analyzing estimated retention rates for the spring of 2020 when Michigan educators decide whether to retain third-grade students for the first time.

According to researchers, depending on how many students receive "good cause exemptions" under the law and are not held back, estimates suggest:

•About 4.4% of third-grade students will be retained. That's about 4,563 students. Only 691, or .67%, of the state's 103,711 third-grade students were retained in the 2018-19 school year, according to state data.

•Up to 11% of African American students may be retained, compared to up to 2.6% for white students.

•About 9.5% of special education students may be retained, compared to 3.6% of students without disabilities.

•Up to 19.8% of students in partnership schools — those with special agreements with the state to improve academic performance — may be retained, compared to 3.7% of non-partnership schools

•Between 2-4% of students in traditional public schools may be retained and between 4-7% of students in public school academies, also called charter schools, may be retained.

Strunk, who is also faculty co-director of EPIC, said the analysis was done to help the Michigan Department of Education understand the potential impact of the law.

"The state is trying to help districts understand how to implement the law and how to try and think ahead," Strunk said. "You have another year, so if we know what kind of kids are going to be retained we can support them."

Brian Jacob, professor of education policy at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy and a co-principal investigator for the project, said the study will allow policymakers to understand the law's impact on student outcomes and provide practitioners with information to help them adjust student supports and classroom practices.

Interim state superintendent Sheila Alles said in a statement that the grant-funded research will help evaluate the influence the law was intended to have, both in providing reading supports to students and the impact these supports and retention have on student reading achievement. 

The Michigan Department of Education did not respond Friday to a request for comment about the potential impact of retention on certain sub-groups.

The state education department announced in May a set of cut scores — selected points on a test's score scale — for third-graders taking the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, in 2020 that will be used to make decisions for retentions. 

It said only 5% of third-grade students would have been held back under the new scoring system had it been applied to 2018 scores, state officials say. That figure is in dramatic contrast to the 55.6% or 56,850 of Michigan's third-graders who scored less than proficient on the English Language Arts portion of the test in 2018.

The reading law, adopted in 2016, stops third-grade students from moving to the fourth grade — with some exemptions — if they read a grade level behind on the state's English Language Arts assessment, which measures reading, writing, listening and language.

Based on the spring 2018 M-STEP data, state officials said in the memo that about 5% of students — or 5,270 students — would be subject to the retention policy, 17.5% of students would be provided additional support and 77.5% of students would meet the third-grade reading requirement.

Michigan is one of 16 states to pass legislation that retains students who fail to read at grade level, but no other state has embarked on research as comprehensive, or collaborative, as what the MERI team plans, researchers said.

Exemptions in the retention law 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.

Once a student is flagged for retention, the law requires that he or she be assigned to a highly effective teacher, highest rated third-grade teacher or a reading specialist; receive daily small group or 1-to-1 reading intervention, ongoing progress monitoring and supplemental reading instruction.