Which Michigan 3rd-graders will flunk reading? The state has no idea.

Michigan passed a law that takes effect in two years that will hold back students who are far behind in third-grade reading skills. But the cutoff line remains a mystery.

A Michigan law draws a clear line in the academic sand: Students who are at least a year behind grade level in reading skills will have to repeat third grade starting in the 2019-20 school year.

There’s only one problem: Michigan doesn’t know how to identify who flunks yet.

The state's standardized test given to students in third grade through eighth grade, the M-STEP, doesn't assign a grade level to students' reading skills. While students are assigned to four categories based on their test scores (advanced, proficient, partially proficient and not proficient) none of these labels align with a student being deemed a grade or more behind. 


Seventeen months after the reading retention policy became law, the Michigan Department of Education is working to retrofit the M-STEP to meet the new requirement. Meanwhile, schools don’t yet know the threshold for holding back students, making it difficult to focus intervention efforts on the students most in danger.

“Legislators making these laws really need to understand what is currently being used before imposing a law,” said Michele Farah, literacy consultant for Oakland Intermediate School District. “MDE and now the students and teachers have to retrofit how the current assessment measures meet the requirements of (the law).”

Researchers and educators say that how well a child reads by third grade is a key indicator of future academic success. Michigan, and many other states, have focused efforts on improving early reading skills.

Conference: Meet the panel for our March 23 Education Solutions Summit in Grand Rapids
Conference: Meet the panel for our March 22 Education Solutions Summit in Detroit

In October 2016, Michigan passed a law mandating that students who are more than a grade behind in reading skills be retained in third grade. Who flunks and who moves on to fourth grade is supposed to be determined by scores on the M-STEP, taken by third-graders in the spring of third grade year. (Some underperforming students can still advance to fourth grade through other tests, a portfolio of work, or if they are English-language learners.)

The retention policy takes effect in the 2019-20 school year – a three-year delay to give schools time to work to improve early reading skills.

But Michigan’s English language arts scores have been dropping, despite about $80 million spent by the state to improve reading skills. In 2014-15, the first year M-STEP was used in classrooms, 50 percent of third-graders were proficient. Two years later, only 44 percent were proficient.

So early reading skills are a problem. But what percent of early learners are a grade or more behind in those skills? Nobody knows.

The three-year notice schools have to prepare for the retention policy is undercut by the fact that schools still don’t know how the state will determine retention.

The mismatch between the state law and the state test has caused some consternation.

Phil Power: Why Michigan schools fail, and what to do about it.
Phil Power: Amazon to Michigan: Fix your schools!

MDE is developing a methodology to determine what student scores will be the equivalent of being a year behind in reading, said Doug Greer, director of school improvement for Ottawa Intermediate School District. It’s likely that methodology won’t be a hard-and-fast cut score, but a range above and below a student’s actual test score to account for normal day-to-day differences in a student’s score.

Greer said his guess is that the percent of students recommended for retention in third grade will be close to the percent who earn scores in the “not proficient” category, the bottom of the four current scoring categories on M-STEP.

On the 2016-17 test, 30 percent of third-graders across the state scored in that bottom category. If that was the standard for repeating third grade, that would mean a staggering 31,000 children held back, compared to about 700 held back in third grade last year.

More than half (56 percent) of African-American third-graders would have been held back in that year if “not proficient” were the cutoff, and roughly 43 percent of children from economically disadvantaged families.

In Detroit Public Schools, seven of 10 would have been held back; Lansing Public Schools, 47 percent; Saginaw Public Schools, 51 percent.  

On the MDE’s website, a page answering frequently asked questions about the third-grade reading law, says: “The assessment and accountability teams at the MDE are currently working to determine, based on state assessments, what will constitute one (1) grade level behind.”

An email from department spokesperson Bill DiSessa didn’t elaborate. “Cut scores still are being defined by the MDE,” DiSessa wrote.

Ottawa ISD’s Greer said he doesn’t believe school officials are worried about not yet knowing the exact methodology MDE will use to determine which third-graders are held back and which move on. He said districts are giving tests to first-graders to try to identify struggling readers early.

“Schools are doing everything they can to intervene with students so they aren’t even close to the cut score,” Greer said. “The challenge is the changing landscape and how frequently (tests) are changing.”

Related: In a state with low reading scores, a West Michigan effort show promise

But there’s another challenge as well ‒ having to do with those first-grade reading tests.

Different school districts offer different reading tests to first graders, with no guarantee they test the same skills valued by M-STEP, said Nell Duke, a literacy researcher the University of Michigan. “If we’re trying to guess on first-grade performance who is on track to be retained or not retained in third-grade, we need instruments aligned with the M-STEP,” Duke said.

“We don’t know what we don’t know yet,” admits John Helmholdt, executive director of communications for Grand Rapids Public Schools. “There’s a huge learning curve and every district is scrambling with implementation.”

Helmholdt suggested the retention law may have to be tweaked before it goes into effect two school years from now.

“Like with any law with sweeping ramifications, there will be some wrinkles,” Helmholdt said. “I think we’d be the first to say there are going to be needed legislative fixes.”

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.


Darryle J. Buchanan
Tue, 03/13/2018 - 8:40am

This is what happens when ideology replaces pedagogy. Education is not a zero sum game. There are no winners and losers. In the end we all lose. Let’s work on solutions and not punishment.

Nancy Flanagan
Tue, 03/13/2018 - 8:53am

The article is a good resource for showing Michigan parents and educators just how crazy this idea is: publicly labeling kids (especially minority children and those in poverty) failures, when we can't even come up with a hard and fast definition of failure.

It is worth thinking about Michigan's 3rd grade flunk law in the light of top-scoring Finland, where formal reading instruction does not begin until children are 7 years of age--our second grade. Finnish schools believe children are not developmentally ready to begin the complex process of decoding and assigning meaning to written language until they are 7 years old, unlike the U.S., where pre-schools are urged to be more 'rigorous' in teaching children their letters and sounds. Finnish children 'catch up' to American children by 4th grade (a year after we're debating how to label them failures for not reading)--and after that, their reading achievement soars, for all children, rich and poor.

Leon L. Hulett
Tue, 03/13/2018 - 9:19am

Here is one way to solve this problem.

Have this clause added to the contract of each teacher that teaches First, Second or Third Grade Reading:

"I promise to teach each student to grade level by the end of the year, or I will provide a Tutor to accomplish this, before the start of the next school year."

This is a higher standard than "Proficient." No student taught to this standard will be held back because of the new law.

Leon L. Hulett
Professional Engineer

Ed Haynor
Mon, 03/19/2018 - 1:43pm

And when our public buildings and roads fail that taxpayers pay for, engineers should be required to pay the bill, regardless of other factors that might have led to construction failure.

Tue, 03/13/2018 - 10:23am

I worry about holding back third graders whose reading scores fall short for a couple of reasons. First, given the likelihood that a large percentage of students will fail to meet this standard, do we have in place 1) enough teachers, para-professionals, classrooms, and other needed facilities and educators to do this work; 2) data-driven strategies for improving outcomes; and 3) funding (!).
Second, what does the data show? Does holding students back actually work to benefit individual students in the long term.
One other comment on the challenges created by declining performance in many districts between third and eighth grade. Has anyone looked at the impact of screen time on student academic performance? I have to wonder if the amount of time kids spend playing video games, games on their computers, and with games and texting on cell phones impacts both the amount of time they spend on reading and other schoolwork. More importantly, how does this impact brain development?

John Q. Public
Tue, 03/13/2018 - 10:58am

I surmise (only time will tell) that the number of children retained because they don't read at grade level will be limited to those whose parents choose that course of action.

If the legislature doesn't like the outcome of the law it passed, it'll do what it always does: either amend it or ignore it.

Ed Haynor
Tue, 03/13/2018 - 11:36am

The statement, "Legislators making these laws really need to understand what is currently being used before imposing a law," is at the essence of many of Michigan's problems. A major reason why student achievement has suffered in Michigan for these many years, is based on the lack of competency, from state elected leaders. When we start to elect smart legislators, things will change, but not until then.

Tue, 03/13/2018 - 4:20pm

I think "not of these labels" in paragraph 3 should be "none of these labels"

Tue, 03/13/2018 - 10:15pm

Schools are NOT doing all they can. How do they pass a literacy law without mentioning Dyslexia?! Structured, systematic, cumulative, explicit, multi-sensory Intervention based off Ortin Gillingham is needed. Dyslexia stats are 1 in 5 and doing more if what failed the child the first time won't work. " If you tell a child 100 times and they still don't understand, who's the slow learner?" Time to educate yourself on Dyslexia. What helps a DYSLEXIC student helps ALL students.

Chuck Fellows
Wed, 03/14/2018 - 12:00pm

Adults devise a test based upon their social/emotional knowledge to determine what proficiency in reading is. Adults that are not really qualified to make such a determination.

How about we all stop and ask the question "Why?" at least seven times about learning to read if the conclusion, based on bogus standardized testing, determines that a child does not know how to read. This is a very difficult endeavor that is missing in the dialogue surrounding education in Michigan.

We will discover, as Cassius stated, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” . The fault is not in our children. It is within the system of education controlled by adults. Universal pre school delivers a financial rate of return of 17:1, not to mention learning success in later grades and improved life outcomes, - why do we refuse to make that investment? We refuse to adequately fund student and teacher supports. We continue to spend millions each year on testing shaming our children defining many as failures, all to support the pursuit of a bogus score.
Please, will someone provide an example of how standardized testing in any form has provided meaningful information to effect improvement in learning outcomes for children.