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June 26, 2024

New MSU report on Michigan's Read by Grade Three law

The Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, or EPIC, in partnership with the Michigan Department of Education and the Center for Educational Performance and Information, or CEPI, has been studying the implementation and outcomes of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law over the past four years.


A new report from EPIC examines patterns in the retention and exemption decisions that districts reported for students subject to this requirement. This policy was in place from 2020-23 for students who scored 1252 or below on the end-of-year state test in English language arts, or ELA.

In 2023, 8% of retention-eligible students repeated the third grade. The other 92% received exemptions from their districts. Even though more than 5,000 students scored below the cutoff for retention eligibility on the third grade Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, in ELA, only about 400 students were retained in third grade, which is about 0.5% of all third grade students who took the test.

Districts held back about 7% of retention-eligible third graders in 2021, increasing to 10% in 2022 and then decreasing to 8% in 2023. This means that in every year when the retention policy was in place, districts promoted no less than 90% of their students eligible for retention through “good cause exemptions.” Across all three years, most of the exemptions that districts granted were due to parent requests, but districts utilized other types of exemptions — like those for English learners — more frequently over time.

“Far too many of our children struggle with reading without structured ways in their schools for educators to determine and address their literacy challenges,” said State Superintendent Michael Rice. “We can do better as a state. We need to screen our early elementary students for characteristics of dyslexia and identify other students who struggle to read so we can provide them with interventions to help them become solid readers. We need to pass the dyslexia legislation this term.”

More than 95% of the students who were retained are economically disadvantaged and more than 80% are students of color. The report finds differences in retention outcomes across subgroups of students, and these disparities became larger over the course of the three years when the Read by Grade Three retention policy was in place.

Students who are economically disadvantaged were more likely to be retained, even after accounting for differences in retention-eligibility rates by socioeconomic status and other characteristics of retention-eligible students and their schools. In 2023, about 58% of Michigan’s third graders were economically disadvantaged, yet 87% of retention-eligible students and over 95% of the students who were retained were economically disadvantaged.

Students of color were also disproportionately more likely to be retained under the Read by Grade Three law. Although only about 19% of Michigan’s third graders in 2023 were students of color, 66% of all students eligible for retention and 82% of the students who were retained that year were students of color. However, the report finds that students who attended the same school, were eligible for the same types of exemptions, had the same attendance rates, and received the same M-STEP scores, had roughly the same likelihood of being retained regardless of their race or ethnicity. In other words, the racial disparity in retention decisions diminishes when accounting for other characteristics of students and the schools they attend.

“Even though the retention component of the Read by Grade Three law is no longer in place, there are still a lot of students throughout Michigan who are struggling with reading,” said Tara Kilbride, EPIC’s assistant director for research and author of the report. “It will be important to continue monitoring students’ literacy development and providing support to those who need it as early as possible.”

Overall, educators working in charter schools viewed and implemented the retention policy differently than those in traditional public schools. Charter schools retained about 17% of their retention-eligible students in 2023, compared to only 5% in traditional public schools. As a result, charter school students represent 51% of all retained students and are disproportionately represented among retained students although only 12% of third-grade students attended charter schools in 2023. While this means that charter schools had higher retention rates on average, there were also many charter schools (40%) that promoted all of their retention-eligible students to the fourth grade.

Charter school teachers, principals and superintendents were more likely than their counterparts in traditional public schools to believe that retention is an effective tool for improving student achievement. Principals’ survey responses also suggest that charter schools differentiate more between the literacy interventions they provide to different groups of students, for example, prioritizing retained students over students who received exemptions and students who were recommended for support but not eligible for retention.

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