Skip navigation links

Dec. 6, 2022

MSU report examines third-grade students retained for reading

New research from Michigan State University shows that in 2022, more students scored low enough in reading to be held back in third grade under the state’s early literacy law, but school districts promoted the majority of these students to the fourth grade.


Katharine Strunk

The Michigan law, known as “Read by Grade Three,” aims to improve early literacy throughout the state, and mandates that students can be held back in third grade if they score lower than one grade-level behind in reading on the end-of-year test.

For the 2022-23 school year, districts reported retaining 545 students under the law, which represents 0.6% of all third-grade students in Michigan and accounts for 9.6% of the 5,680 students who were eligible to repeat third grade. This is an increase of 3% compared to 2020-21 when far fewer students participated in the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M- STEP, in English Language Arts compared. In 2020-21, just 71% of third graders took the year-end test compared to 96% in 2021-22.

The report shows that there were substantial differences in retention rates between districts and for different types of students. Districts reported that they would retain nearly 14% of Black students, compared to about 6% of white students, and this disparity grew from 2020-21 to 2021-22. Additionally, economically disadvantaged students were twice as likely to be retained than their wealthier peers. Lower-performing and urban districts, as well as charter schools, were more likely than others to hold back all of their retention-eligible students.

“These data show that, while very few third-graders were retained as a result of the Read by Grade Three Law, retention disproportionately impacts students of color and low-income students, as well as students in urban districts and districts that have been traditionally lower-performing,” said Katharine Strunk, Clifford E. Erickson Distinguished Professor of Education Policy and faculty director of MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, or EPIC.

“As state lawmakers debate whether to rescind or how to amend the Read by Grade Three law, it will be important that they understand the potential for inequitable implementation of the law,” Strunk said. “EPIC’s ongoing longitudinal study shows that educators appreciate many aspects of the law, including resources for additional coaches and professional development. Ideally, lawmakers will consider how to maintain and improve the law so that it furthers all students’ opportunities to learn.”

Under the Read by Grade Three Law, local school districts have substantial discretion over whether to promote or retain students for low reading scores. Students can 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
  • 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
  • Students who demonstrated proficiency in other subject areas or through other assessments of their work
  • Students whose parents request an exemption, provided that their superintendent agrees that retention is not in the student’s best interest.

For the last two school years, more than 50%, of retention-eligible students received an exemption because a parent requested it. The next largest share of students, around 23%, received an exemption because they had an IEP or Section 504 plan.

“While there has been an increase in the percentage of students eligible for retention who have been retained, retention is still used for fewer than 10 percent of eligible students, and EPIC’s research indicates that both parents and educators have reservations about the benefit of retention,” said State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice. “Remote instruction in some districts in 2020-21 made some educators and parents more willing to consider retention for those reading well below grade level at the end of 2021-22. That said, regular tutoring by trained tutors, individualized reading improvement plans, reading coach intervention, diverse classroom libraries to encourage students to read more and better, and parent, family and community literacy efforts are all ways to improve literacy achievement without retention.”

Differences in retention rates may be explained in part by whether educators in that district believe holding a student back in third grade is likely to improve literacy. In a survey given in the spring of 2021 to superintendents, principals and teachers in kindergarten through fifth grade, educators in districts that retained all or some of their students were more likely to view retention as effective at improving achievement and less likely to view the process as burdensome than educators in districts that promoted all eligible students.

EPIC completed this report in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Education and the state’s Center for Educational and Performance and Information. EPIC is the strategic research partner to MDE. EPIC has been studying the Read by Grade Three Law since 2019 in an effort to understand the implementation and impact of the policy as it has taken effect. This is the second year in which students could be held back under the law and the report is a follow-up to a September 2022 report analyzing the portion of the students in the state that were eligible for retention.

By: Kim Ward

Media Contacts