Skip navigation links

Feb. 14, 2022

How early literacy has been impacted by pandemic/3rd grade reading law

Katharine Strunk, Clifford E. Erickson Distinguished Chair in Education and co-director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative research lab

After seeing modest improvements in early literacy prior to the pandemic, new concerns are emerging in Michigan, according to a new report on the state’s Read by Grade Three law from Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, the strategic research partner of the Michigan Department of Education.


This is particularly important evidence to consider in light of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recent budget proposal, which includes a heavy focus on increased spending in education to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.


Prior to the pandemic, student performance in English Language Arts, or ELA, on Michigan’s end-of-year standardized test — the M-STEP — through 2018-19 suggested improvements in 3rd through 5th grade after the law’s implementation. This was true for overall M-STEP scores and the four areas of subscores (reading, listening, writing and research).


More recent test results are incomplete and therefore difficult to incorporate into the results. The M-STEP was cancelled in spring 2020 due to COVID-19-related disruptions. When the test resumed in spring 2021, it was not mandatory for all students. However, other data sources from the 2020-21 school year provide concerning information about literacy instruction and student performance during the pandemic.


Educators believed the pandemic had a negative impact on their ability to provide the literacy instruction and interventions necessary to improve students’ literacy skills, according to the report. Overall, K-3 teachers reported spending two fewer hours per week on literacy instruction in 2020-21 than in the previous year.


Pandemic-related challenges were particularly noticeable for remote instruction. Teachers reported greater decreases in instruction time allotted for literacy skills, raising concerns that students learning remotely likely had fewer learning opportunities for reading during the 2020-2021 school year.


Katharine Strunk, director of EPIC and professor of education at MSU said, “As in every state across the nation, Michigan students were severely impacted by the pandemic. It is disheartening to see that the early gains made as a result of the state’s efforts to improve literacy for our youngest learners have been so substantially affected by the disruptions caused by COVID-19.”


Teachers and literacy coaches also reported reduced time for literacy professional development during the pandemic. Teachers reported receiving significantly less one-on-one literacy coaching and professional development in the 2020-2021 school year than the prior year. Conversely, literacy coaches also reported significant challenges in providing professional development to teachers, generally due to pandemic-related disruptions.


Tanya Wright, associate professor of teacher education at MSU and co-author of the report said, “The purpose of coaching and professional development is to support classroom teachers in improving their literacy instruction so that fewer students are identified as needing additional interventions for reading. It’s particularly concerning for the children of our state that the pandemic limited teachers’ professional learning opportunities.”


In terms of student performance in literacy, the report shows that a striking 52% of Michigan students who were in 3rd grade in the 2020-2021 school year had at some point between the 1st and 3rd grades a “reading deficiency” as defined by the Read by Grade Three law, with about one-third of students identified in a given year and 17% identified all three years in grades one through three.


Districts use the “reading deficiency” designation to identify kindergarten to 3rd grade students who need substantial support and intervention to improve their literacy skills. “Reading deficiency” rates were significantly higher among historically marginalized student groups and the districts that serve them. Even with the large number of students identified with a “reading deficiency” in grades one through three, there is still some evidence that not all students who need literacy intervention are being identified.


The 2020-2021 school year marked the first time in which students could be retained in third grade under the law for low M-STEP scores. Though fewer students took the M-STEP in the spring of 2021 than in a typical year, fewer than 5% of tested students were eligible for retention based on their 3rd grade ELA M-STEP scores. Districts reported that they intended to retain just 0.3% of tested students who were eligible for retention, providing “good cause exemptions” under the law for others. Economically disadvantaged, Black and Latino/a/x students were significantly more likely to be retention eligible than their peers, and districts intended to retain students from these groups at higher rates.  


EPIC used multiple methods of data and analysis, including interviews of state-level stakeholders; surveys of teachers, principals, district superintendents and early literacy coaches; and longitudinal administrative records to develop this report.


Note to media: Please link to the full report:




By: Kim Ward

Media Contacts