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July 24, 2019

2K to 5K students would repeat third grade if reading law took effect today

If Michigan’s controversial Read by Grade 3 law went into effect today, it’s estimated between 2% and 5% – or 2,000-5,000 students – would be retained to repeat third grade.

Additionally, between 7% and 11% of African American third graders, up to 10% of special education students, and between 12% and 20% of students in Partnership Schools, the lowest-performing schools in Michigan, would have to repeat third grade reading, according to the report Estimated Read by Grade 3 Retention Rates.

Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, EPIC, wrote the report to identify the range of potential outcomes under the law, which requires the first round of retention to take place after the 2019-2020 school year.

EPIC’s researchers used the English Language Arts portion of the 2017 – 2018 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, and retention guidelines outlined by state education officials to determine the estimates.

Although much debate over this law ­– and others like it nationally – has focused on the controversial retention component, other features of Michigan’s law include monitoring students prior to third grade and improved instructional practices for struggling students, said Katharine Strunk, co-director of EPIC and professor of education policy.

“The idea here isn’t to punitively retain students for scoring below grade level, but to improve reading instruction and student learning, therefore making retention unnecessary,” Strunk said. “We are hoping that by estimating how many kids may be at risk for retention, it will be possible to identify and help struggling students before the end of this coming school year.”

According to Strunk, these estimates align with the increasing evidence of deep inequities in early literacy proficiency.

“Nationally, there are substantial differences in student reading outcomes based on income and race but in Michigan, the early literacy problem is particularly acute,” Strunk said. “For example, in 2017, only 44% of Michigan’s third graders rated proficient or above on Michigan’s standardized assessment. The rates were even lower for certain groups: only 29% of low-income students, 32% of Hispanic students and only 20% of African American third graders were proficient.”

Strunk and the EPIC team are part of the Michigan Education Research Institute, or MERI, which will be evaluating the law’s impact on students and recommending changes along the way with the help of a five-year, nearly $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. MERI is a partnership between MSU, University of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Education and the state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information.

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, said Joshua Cowen,  co-director of EPIC and education policy professor.

“It’s been more than 10 years since a major, rigorous evaluation has been conducted on third grade reading laws elsewhere,” Cowen said. “Our research, which will be unprecedented in scope, will provide a much-needed indicator for policymakers in other states. We’re not just providing a backward glance at some law or program years after it was created. Instead, we’re working with the state in real time to determine how the law is working and how it’s not.

“Given the established links between literacy and long-term outcomes, there is increasing concern our nation’s children are testing at literacy levels that place them at risk for future academic and life challenges,” Cowen said. “That’s why an evaluation of this law in Michigan is so necessary as we move forward.”

By: Kim Ward

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