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Study finds more than half of Michigan students between first, third grades had reading deficiency

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

More than three full school years into Michigan's controversial Read by Grade Three law, 52% of Michigan's third-grade students had a "reading deficiency" between first and third grade and the rates were higher among historically marginalized student groups, researchers reported on Monday.

The report uses data gathered in the spring of 2021 from nearly 9,000 educators and is the second year of a four-year evaluation of the law by Katharine Strunk, director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University, and her team. 

Strunk on Monday told The Detroit News several concerning findings surfaced in the report, including that about one-third of students are designated as “reading deficient” in each year leading up to third grade.

"This suggests a large number of early elementary students are struggling with literacy and are in need of additional supports to ensure that they read at grade level," Strunk said in an email to the News.

Strunk said some silver linings exist in the report, including that teachers believe the professional development they receive under the law is helpful in improving their literacy instruction.

"They just want more of it," Strunk said.

The report found fewer than 5% of tested students were eligible for retention based on state assessment scores in reading and that districts intended to retain 0.3% of tested students, providing good cause exemptions to the others.

Last May, the state sent letters to homes of nearly 3,661 third graders informing parents their child had been flagged for retention. Across the state last year, 229 third-graders were slated to repeat the grade. How many students were actually retained will be determined by reviewing fall enrollment data this winter, Strunk said.

Economically disadvantaged, Black and Hispanic or Latino students were significantly more likely to be retention-eligible than their White and wealthier peers, researchers said.

Adopted in 2016 by the GOP-controlled Legislature, the law says third-grade students can be stopped from moving to the fourth grade if they read a grade level behind based on their score on the state's reading assessment.

Academic support and intervention were implemented in schools starting in the 2017-18 school year with the retention portion of the law to be enforced for the first time in the 2019-20 school year. However, state assessments were canceled due to the pandemic delaying the use of retention. 

The study also found that on average, K-3 teachers reported spending two fewer hours per week on literacy instruction last school year than the previous year.

Strunk's report says "assuming 40 weeks of instruction per year, this implies 80 fewer hours of literacy instruction over the academic year. Given the importance of instructional time for student learning, this reduction in literacy instruction could severely negatively affect Michigan students’ literacy skills."

Teachers told researchers that the COVID-19 pandemic had a detrimental effect on their ability to provide literacy instruction and interventions to students.

"While all K-3 teachers reported pandemic-related challenges, they were particularly salient for teachers instructing remotely," the report said. "Teachers providing remote instruction were also far more likely than in-person teachers to report a decrease in the amount of time they spent on literacy instruction. These disparities raise concerns that students learning remotely due to the pandemic likely faced inequitable learning opportunities and outcomes during the 2020-21 school year."

The report found state assessment scores in 2019 in English language arts for third through fifth graders improved after the law’s implementation.

"This was true for overall M-STEP scores and the four subscores (reading, listening, writing, and research," according to the report's executive summary. "On the other hand...the majority of teachers believed there had been little to no improvement in their incoming students’ literacy skills since the law’s implementation."

State Superintendent Michael Rice said students and staff benefit from being in school in person and from the resources the governor has outlined in her budget request.

"It's important that the Legislature approve the recruitment and retention recommendations so that we can address teacher and support staff shortages and strengthen schools for our children," Rice said in a statement.

Jennifer ​Mrozowski, spokeswoman for Education Trust-Midwest, an education advocacy group, said Michigan is missing the mark in strategically improving early literacy and disproportionate gaps in opportunity exist for the state’s most disadvantaged students. 

"Research shows that early literacy is a foundational skill for future academic success. When children read well by third grade, they are dramatically more likely to succeed not only in school, but in life," ​Mrozowski said.

"If we are truly committed to making Michigan a top ten state for education, we must make early literacy a top priority in our state," ​Mrozowski said. "That should include strategic investments to improve and support our youngest readers, including through a coordinated statewide plan backed by effective implementation."