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Nov. 7, 2023

Fewer Michigan 3rd graders could be held back for reading

Roughly 5.6% of Michigan third graders could be required to repeat third grade due to low reading scores, according to a new report from Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, or EPIC.


This is a slight improvement from the 5.8% of third graders who could have been held back in 2022, but remains higher than the pre-pandemic rate of just 4.1% in 2019. Improvements in retention eligibility rates were driven mostly by students in urban areas, districts with lower prior English-language arts, or ELA, achievement and in traditional public schools.

This is the final group of students eligible to be held back under Michigan’s Read by Grade Three Law because the retention component of the policy was repealed in the spring of 2023. Previously, the law called for students to repeat third grade if they were more than one year behind in reading, which is measured by receiving a score of 1252 or below on the M-STEP ELA, the end-of-year state test.

“While we made some progress last year, as we emerge from the pandemic, too many of our children continue to struggle with literacy,” said State Superintendent Michael Rice. “Children require more time in school with highly trained, certificated educators and tutors, and more diverse classroom reading materials that encourage children in a wide range of ways to seek out books as sources of information and inspiration.”

Rice specifically noted important elements for educators funded by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in recent budgets like LETRS science of literacy professional development, literacy essentials, dyslexia training, and the governor’s MI Kids Back on Track initiative to provide students more time with trained tutors in small groups or one on one literacy sessions. Additionally, efforts to recruit and retain Michigan educators are essential to improving literacy rates.

Headshot of Tara Kilbride.
Tara Kilbride is the interim associate director of EPIC, which is housed in MSU's College of Education. Courtesy photo.

While third graders in 2023 had slightly lower retention eligibility rates, they were also slightly less likely to meet state standards for proficiency in ELA overall. In 2023, 65.4% of third grade students at least partially met state standards, compared to 65.6% in 2022. By scoring 1271 or below on the M-STEP ELA, more than one quarter of third grade students qualify for literacy supports under the Read by Grade Three Law.

According to Tara Kilbride, interim associate director of EPIC, this provides evidence that early literacy should still be a priority in Michigan.

“It is clear from these results that a lot of Michigan’s third graders are struggling with reading,” Kilbride said. “Even though the retention policy is ending after this year, it will be important to continue to provide students with the support they need to develop early literacy skills.”

Once the analysis accounts for the factors that may qualify students for exemptions, only an estimated 2% of tested third grade students could be retained under the Read by Grade Three Law. This is a lower rate than last year’s estimated 2.4% of third graders, and it is being driven by recent increases in students changing districts, as more students eligible for retention in 2023 are expected to be granted an exemption for having been enrolled in their current district for less than two years.   

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