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Black, poor students held back at higher rates under Michigan reading law

young girl reading
Democratic lawmakers and many educators are calling for major changes to Michigan’s third-grade reading law. The law requires students who are a year or more behind in reading by the end of third grade to be held back. But there are so many loopholes in the law that only a fraction of struggling students don’t move on to fourth grade. (Rachel Wisniewski for Chalkbeat)
  • Michigan’s third-grade reading law requires students who struggle the most to be held back, though it has many loopholes 
  • Research shows Black and low-income students who struggle are far more likely to held back then their white, more affluent peers
  • Democratic critics may seek to repeal the law when they take over in January, though some educators that goes too far 

Black students and students from low-income homes were more than twice as likely in Michigan to have to repeat the third grade compared with their white and wealthier peers who also were identified for retention because they struggled with reading.

The gap in which struggling readers were held back is one of the details contained in the latest research report on Michigan’s controversial Read by Grade 3 law, which requires schools hold back students who are a grade level or more behind in reading.

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But the law provides so many exemptions that only a sliver of struggling readers are held back. Last school year, for instance, nearly 5,700 Michigan third-graders were eligible for retention based on their reading scores, yet only 545 were held back. 

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And the racial and income gaps suggest those decisions are being applied unevenly. 

Overall, Black students and students from low-income homes are more likely to be flagged for retention based on reading test scores. But researchers with the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University found that greater proportions of these students are actually repeating third grade. 

The report, released Tuesday, shows 13.6 percent of the Black students who were flagged were held back, while just 5.7 percent of white students flagged repeated third grade. Similarly, 10.5 percent of eligible students from low-income families were held back, compared with 4.3 percent of students who are not from low-income families. 

“Those are pretty big disparities,” said Katharine Strunk, EPIC director. “Those suggest to me that retention is being implemented differentially for different kinds of students.”

The gaps are growing, too. 

During the 2020-21 school year 9.8 percent of Black students who tested at least a year behind grade level were retained, compared with 4.9 percent of white students. And 7.3 percent of eligible students from low-income homes were retained, compared with 3.6 percent of wealthier students.

Michigan’s Read by Grade 3 law, passed by Republicans in 2016, required schools to identify struggling readers and provide early intervention. The rule requiring students be held back was part of the law, but didn’t kick in until the 2020-21 school year. Exemptions are available based on many factors, such as a student’s special education or English language learner status, if they’ve previously been held back, and if the parent and superintendent agree that retention isn’t in the child’s best interest. 

EPIC has been working with researchers from the University of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Education, and the state Center for Educational Performance and Information to research the impact of the law, according to the report. 

Teachers and principals in school districts that retained at least one student were more likely than their peers in schools that promoted all students to believe retention was an effective intervention. That suggests districts are more likely to retain students if they believe it is effective, the report said. 

But Strunk cautioned that even though these educators were more likely to be optimistic about retention, overall the majority of them were opposed to retention as a strategy. 

The Read by Grade 3 law was controversial from the beginning, with many education groups and Democrats in the Michigan Legislature opposed. While there is broad support across political lines on the need for early reading intervention for struggling readers, critics of the law generally opposed the retention rule. Now, as Democrats prepare to assume control of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in decades, it is likely that parts or all of the law could be on the chopping block.

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Strunk said it would be a mistake to kill the law entirely.

“There’s a lot more to the law than just retention,” Strunk said. “We have data from prior to the pandemic that actually shows this seems to be improving student achievement in early literacy. So, it would be a shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater and get rid of the entire law.”

That doesn’t mean the law doesn’t have some parts that need to be amended, Strunk said, but “there are a lot of good things in this law, like a real focus on instructional coaching, like the real focus on professional development, like the focus on training teachers about literacy essentials. … We want those things to continue. As policymakers think about how and where to go next with literacy policy, it's important to think about this.”

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at lhiggins@chalkbeat.org.

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