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Oct. 18, 2021

MSU report finds disparities in districts’ implementation of Michigan third grade literacy law

New research from Michigan State University shows that school districts intended to retain 229 students this school year out of more than 3,000 eligible based on low reading scores under Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law.


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. Parental preference was a big reason for administrative promotion to the fourth grade by districts.


“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,” said Katharine Strunk, Clifford E. Erickson Distinguished Professor of Education Policy and faculty director of MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, or EPIC.

EPIC completed this report in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Education, MDE, and the state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information, CEPI. EPIC is the strategic research partner to MDE. The report is a follow-up to an
August 2021 report on the retention component of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law, which went into effect at the end of the 2020-2021 school year in spite of learning disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.


In June and July, CEPI sent letters to the homes of more than 3,000 third graders who scored 1252 or below on the English Language Arts, or ELA, portion of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP. Parents were told their children may have to repeat third grade because of low reading scores. Districts, however, were responsible for determining whether these students instead would be allowed to proceed to fourth grade.


This law allows students to be promoted if they receive “good cause exemptions” if they fall into one of a number of categories: English learners with fewer than three years of English language instruction; students with an Individualized Education Program known as IEP or Section 504 Plan; students who were previously retained and received intensive reading interventions for two or more years; and students who have been enrolled in their current district for less than two years and were not provided with an appropriate individual reading improvement plan.


MSU researchers reviewed data as reported by school districts prior to Sept. 1. Further review of this year’s actual enrollment is expected in the coming months.  


According to the analysis, more than 75 percent of districts with at least one student eligible for third-grade retention intended to promote them all. More than half of all reported good cause exemptions were based on parent requests, another possible rationale for exemptions with superintendents’ approval. Over 60% of good cause exemptions for students who do not have a disability were due to parent requests. In contrast, nearly two-thirds of students with disabilities received exemptions under the good cause exemption targeting students with an IEP or Section 504 plan.


The report also found substantial disparities in the retention outcomes for eligible students across districts and students. School districts intended to retain a larger proportion of Black students (10%) than students of any other race. In fact, Black students were more than twice as likely to be retained than white students. Retention-eligible students with economic disadvantages were also more than twice as likely to be retained as their higher-income peers.


Districts that fell in the bottom 25% of ELA performance in 2019 were over three times as likely to retain eligible students and less likely to grant good cause exemptions due to an IEP or Section 504 Plan compared to higher performing districts.


School districts planning to provide fully remote instruction in May 2021 retained a larger proportion of eligible students than districts offering other types of instruction. Districts planning to offer hybrid instruction were more likely to promote students through parent requests than others, while districts who planned to offer in-person instruction were more likely than others to promote students due to IEPs or Section 504 plans.


“Here, again, we have evidence of the inequitable implementation by local school districts of the Read by Grade Three law in Michigan,” Strunk said. “Even when we account for which groups of students were eligible for retention to begin with, Black and lower-income students and students in districts that were lower-achieving before the pandemic were more likely to be retained at the end of the 2020-21 school year.”


By: Kim Ward

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