Will Michigan 3rd- grade reading law hurt poor? Florida’s history says yes

Michigan’s third-grade reading law goes into effect this fall. A new Florida study of a similar policy in the Sunshine State raises warnings about income and racial biases in grade retention. (Shutterstock)

Children from low-income and minority families will be more likely to flunk than wealthier white classmates with similarly low test scores under Michigan’s third-grade reading law, if the experience of Florida is repeated here.

Florida implemented a third-grade retention policy for children not reading at grade level nearly two decades ago, in 2002. That policy ‒ which, like Michigan’s, provides loopholes for some students ‒ is markedly similar to Michigan’s read-or-flunk law that goes into effect next school year.

A soon-to-be-published study by researchers at the American Institutes for Research and Northwestern University found that Florida third-graders with similarly low reading scores were held back at different rates, depending on the socioeconomic status of their families.

Related: Poll: parents don’t know Michigan's 3rd-grade reading law, love A-to-F school grades

What do 3rd-grade teachers think?

Are you a third-grade teacher in Michigan? Bridge Magazine would like to get your views on preparing for Michigan’s third-grade reading retention law next school year. To share your thoughts, contact Ron French at rfrench@bridgemi.com.

While the long-term impact of holding children back a grade is mixed, the socioeconomic and racial disparity found in Florida should be a flashing yellow caution light for Michigan, said Sarah Lenhoff, assistant professor of education at Wayne State University.

“This study is an important warning for Michigan lawmakers and educators as our state implements this new law,” Lenhoff said. “If children are given differential opportunities to use exemptions from retention, this policy could lead to greater inequity in educational opportunity between low-income children and their wealthier peers.”

Related: Michigan is investing heavily in early reading. So far, it’s not working.

Researchers and educators agree that a child’s reading level in third grade is a key indicator of future academic success. That’s why Michigan and many other states focus efforts on improving early reading skills. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for instance, wants to add resources in schools to address early literacy.

In October 2016, Michigan’s Legislature passed a law requiring that students more than a grade level behind in reading skills be retained in third grade. The policy doesn’t kick in until this fall – a three-year delay intended to give schools time to improve early reading skills and allow the state Department of Education to create grade-level assessments from the state M-STEP test.

Who flunks and who moves on to fourth grade is supposed to be determined primarily by scores on the M-STEP, taken in the spring of third grade. But the reality is less clear cut.

Underperforming students can still advance to fourth grade through a number of exemptions spelled out in the law. There are, for instance, exemptions for English language learners, or for children who already have been retained in a grade.

The biggest and most subjective exemption available to struggling third-graders: the ability for parents to ask that their child be advanced to fourth grade “in the best interests of the student.” If a parent makes such a request, school officials then determine whether the child should go to fourth grade or stay in third.

A nearly identical exemption is what led to the socioeconomic and racial disparities in Florida. It turns out, parents (particularly mothers) with higher incomes and education appear to have more success advocating for their children’s advancement than parents from disadvantaged backgrounds, even when their children have similarly low scores.  

According to the study, which examined retention rates before and after Florida’s law went into effect (2000 to 2008), 48 percent of low-income struggling readers were held back in third grade under the policy, but only 41 percent of struggling readers from more affluent families were held back, despite similar test scores.

Related: Reader FAQ: Does Michigan Lottery money really go to schools?

A child whose mother had a bachelor’s degree was 14 percent less likely to be retained in third grade than a child whose mother was a high school dropout, even though their children’s tests scores were the same. Racial disparities also existed, but at a lower gap.

Before the third-grade reading retention policy went into effect in Florida, there was only a small difference in retention between poor and more affluent students and racial groups with similar test scores, said Christina LiCalsi, lead author of the study and a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research in Chicago. After the policy, the retention gap widened.

LiCalsi said it’s fair to offer parents a chance to argue their child would benefit by advancing to fourth grade despite poor reading skills. But the exemption adds subjectivity to the decision, leading to differences, perhaps unintended, in how the law is enforced.

“All we can tell for sure is… the disparity is in the more subjective exemptions,” LiCalsi said. “We can’t tell from this data if more educated parents are requesting (exemptions) more often than (less-educated) parents, or if they’re requesting at the same rate and (school officials) are subjectively choosing to advance some students over others.”

Either way, the result was the same: The Florida law has been “enforced differentially,” the study found, with a low-income struggling reader more likely being required to repeat third grade than a higher-income struggling reader.

Whitmer, a Democrat, has previously said she’d like to “get rid” of Michigan’s read-or-flunk law. The incoming State Superintendent Michael Rice, recently appointed by a Democratic-majority state school board, calls it “a bad law” based on “the false premise that the beatings will continue until reading improves. It’s far too punitive and comes with too few resources.

“We have to improve reading in Michigan,” Rice said in his interview for the state’s chief school post. “But retention is not good for children.” 

State Rep. Kristy Pagan, D-Canton Township, recently introduced a bill to repeal the retention portion of Michigan’s third-grade reading law. “Retention does nothing to actually improve literacy,” Pagan said.

But with Republicans still holding majorities in the House and Senate, the odds of the GOP-driven law being repealed are slim.

In a statement released in March, a conservative Michigan education group, the Great Lakes Education Project, blasted the suggestion that the state’s third-grade law should be repealed.

“Michigan’s Third Grade Reading law is an evidence-based policy that lifts Michigan’s students up to thrive. We owe it (to) our children to give them the best and this starts with the skill of reading,” said Beth DeShone, advocacy director GLEP. “Studies prove students must learn to read by third grade so they can read to learn for the rest of their career. We cannot return to social promotion (promoting students to the next grade despite poor performance) so that career politicians can coddle those who prioritize adult feelings over student needs.”

DeShone downplayed the Florida study, pointing out to Bridge this week that students in Florida outperform Michigan students in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the “nation’s report card.”

“The Read By Grade Three law has put in place a system that will ensure students are screened starting in kindergarten to determine if there are literacy delays and work to address those delays immediately so that students have the greatest possibility for success in literacy and their overall education moving forward,” DeShone said. “By its design, if implemented effectively, it should close achievement gaps because we are supporting student literacy at an earlier age.”

The impact of retaining third-graders is less clear.

A separate study of Florida third-graders held back because of the reading policy showed little positive or negative long-term impact. Those retained in third grade graduated at the same rate as those who weren’t retained, and enrolled in college at the same rate.

But even if retention has no long-term impact on third-graders, the study notes that holding students back a year means an extra year in K-12 schools – costing taxpayers money and delaying students’ entry into the workforce or college.

“It’s not a particularly effective policy,” LiCalsi said.

An Ottawa County school official said he is disturbed by the Florida findings.

“It was disheartening to see the disparity the Florida study shows that poverty and other factors have such an impact on third-grade retention,” said Doug Greer, director of school improvement for Ottawa Intermediate School District. “Many of those factors likely attribute to parent involvement.”

But Greer also said Michigan’s law allows teachers to determine whether a struggling reader should advance even without intercession by parents. “This provides the opportunity for educators to determine the best manner of support for a child based on the interventions the child needs.”

Teachers, though, can also have unconscious bias in making these decisions, said LiCalsi, the study’s lead author.

“The most important thing for policymakers to realize is that even though they may intend a policy to be universal and neutral, people interact with policy in different ways.”

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Fri, 05/17/2019 - 9:22am

Let's review this.
-Keeping the student in school an extra year costs taxpayers an extra $8k to 12k per held back student.
-"A separate study of Florida third-graders held back because of the reading policy showed little positive or negative long-term impact. Those retained in third grade graduated at the same rate as those who weren’t retained, and enrolled in college at the same rate."
-The student is delayed a year from going to college, or becoming a taxpaying employee.
-"But with Republicans still holding majorities in the House and Senate, the odds of the GOP-driven law being repealed are slim."
-Ideology once again 'trumps' science.

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 10:35am

Which hurts more? A lifetime of illiteracy or a year's delay so the child is able to read at a 3rd grade level?

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 12:47pm

Where did you read "lifetime of illiteracy"?
The article clearly stated :
-"A separate study of Florida third-graders held back because of the reading policy showed little positive or negative long-term impact. Those retained in third grade graduated at the same rate as those who weren’t retained, and enrolled in college at the same rate."
Repeating third grade because of a low reading test score had virtually no impact. Probably due to a variety of causes, such as it was an inaccurate test score, or the child got the exact same curriculum again as they repeated third grade, or the child was just a slow starter and would have caught up even without repeating the grade.
As the new ed superintendent said, this is just a waste of taxpayer money.

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 11:51am

Nice to know that we have a State Superintendent with a brain. Because statements like: "Studies prove students must learn to read by third grade so they can read to learn for the rest of their career.." do not indicate a person with developed educational skills. For a multitude of reasons there are kids who can't read by 3rd grade - not their fault. Besides which 1. being poor does not mean stupid, nor does being black. And 2. being white and rich does not mean being smart. Why are we continually telling kids that if they are poor or black is expected that they can't read, write, talk, etc etc? I thought when we went through the Civil Rights Movement, we did away with discrimination at least by institutions and agencies. Somewhere along the line, we turned our back on educating kids where they are at - gifted and talented programs and remedial programs were just accepted as reality, and they worked. I recall having at least 3 if not more reading groups in my elementary classes - the only person I recall being held back was young and hearing impaired. Bob couldn't spell his name the same way twice and graduated with the class; others were National Merit Scholarship winners and we had big classes. Put education back in the hands of teaching professionals, i.e. Teachers, and keep the legislators far away from them. And please stop destroying poor black kids motivation to succeed by telling all that they just can't make the grade so we need to 'protect them'. They are kids who have the right to work to their ability and not be discouraged by adults with agendas.

Al Churchill
Fri, 05/17/2019 - 6:35pm

Tam In a positive way, I was affected by your comment. To the final dotted i and crossed t, you expressed my , long held opinion better than I could.
I might add a couple of things.
While we have, since "a Nation at Risk", been addressing "in-school" factors, in trying to improve our kids educational success, we have paid little attention to out-of-school circumstances. James Coleman, of Johns Hopkins University, did a study that concluded that out-of-school
factors determined 3/5ths of success in school. Parent involvement in a child's schooling , for example, plays an immeasurable role in how well they progress academically. Family stability, neighborhood stability, health care etc. play a large role in a child's education. Much more attention is needed is this area.
You are right. We need to expedite the removal of politicians from setting school policy. We need to turn educators loose to do what they have always done well; educate our kids.
As to "a Nation at Risk", that document was a response to Republicans needing a "womens" issue: education. While it was presented to the public without a credible counterpoint, legitimate criticism existed. The US Department of Energy commissioned Sandia Corp. to provide documentation for what was a poorly researched "Risk" release. Well, guess what. Sandia refuted "Risk" in it's entirety. As a result, The Sandia report was immediately sent into the bowels of the Department of Energy, not to be seen until years later when it appeared in an educational digest. There have been numerous negative responses to "Risk". Probably because Sandia was disposed of so efficiently, the media never picked up on them. The fact is, according to Dianne Ravitch, former US Asst. Sect. of Education in both Republican and Democratic administrations, when poverty is factored into the equation, American schools do as well as the leaders in international school test rankings. While there are still areas that require extra attention, the allegation that American schools are failing is a sham.
Three cheers for American teachers and their unions.
I just might add that states that have teachers unions succeed educationally more than states without unions.

Fri, 05/17/2019 - 2:04pm

I thinking we're asking the wrong question. in a comparison of those (with similar grades), comparing the group held back with the group advanced, which were doing better 8-10 years later.? Florida should have that data.

Wed, 05/22/2019 - 12:52pm

Florida does have that data. And Bridge published a link to the study (https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/17/07/when-kids-are-held-back-gains-...) that describes both advantages and disadvantages in a previous article. The students held back in 3rd grade for low reading skills went on to graduate from high school at similar rates to those who were promoted in spite of low reading scores. The retained students improved their reading skills more, got better grades during high school, and were enrolled in fewer remedial high school classes than their low-reading peers who were advanced to 4th grade "on schedule". Those held back in 3rd grade were less likely to be retained in higher grades than the low-scoring students who advanced to 4th grade in spite of their poor reading skills. The "held back" students attended college and other post-secondary education programs at the same rate as those promoted in spite of low reading skills, but not at higher rates as some Florida educators had hoped would happen.

While some Floridians feel that the higher grades and better scores on their NAEP and state exams are not worth the extra expense of having a significant fraction (6 or 7% overall) of 3rd graders repeat a grade, many Florida middle and high school teachers report that having less spread in reading skills among their students improves their ability to teach all the students closer to grade level.

Donna Anuskiewicz
Fri, 05/17/2019 - 4:59pm

Research published by Betty Hart and Todd Risley citing the vocabulary gap between rich and poor children has been available since 1992. It infuriates me that legislators with no experience in education and certainly unaware of current research make up rules such as the one for third graders. Children from poor families need verbal enrichment--programs that begin when they are learning to speak and continue through elementary school. They also need summer programs that help them retain what they have learned during the school year. They certainly do not need to spend two years in third grade. Let's be proactive, folks.

Sat, 05/18/2019 - 8:36am

I think its ridiculous that ur story say wealthy white kids are more likely to succeed then low income children..thats bs ..is it because their parents pay for them to get through..im low income and my children read beyond their grade level...a family's income has nothing to do with education...

Leneta Burchfield
Sat, 05/18/2019 - 2:50pm

Amen and well said. Poverty does not equal stupidity. It just means you have to work a little harder to get what you want. And, in my opinion, it makes success a lot sweeter.

Dave P.
Sat, 05/18/2019 - 12:57pm

Years of research has indicated that retention has no benefit to students that are held back and may be harmful to them. Think about it, a student has a hard time with third grade reading so we hold them back and teach them the same thing over again. They need better instruction and more instruction, not meaningless retention. Please save our schools from our legislators!

Sat, 05/18/2019 - 11:46pm

There is an underline bias in this reporting, there is an assumption that it is beneficial for non minority students who have "successful advocates" to progress to the fourth grade. One could make the argument that this actually helps minorities, more students of color get additional time, resources, etc which historically was not available. Not a balanced article.

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 05/19/2019 - 10:27am

Having kids repeat a year of what didn't work the first time makes no sense. People who do not understand reading should not be dictating education rules. The standardized tests are not accurate and reading doesn't magically become "reading to learn" at a particular age. We certainly need to do a better job teaching reading to those who have difficulty reading (dyslexia etc.) and those students could continue to receive reading help in 4th and beyond. They will need it. Worst of all we may actually spend a lot of time teaching kids to hate reading by implementing this law. It just makes no sense. It will harm kids.

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 3:26pm

What's interesting is that no one points out what I personally find to be the most important. Standardized tests do not test a child's ability to read. It tests their ability to comprehend what they read at a high level. My son for instance can read very well and read for information. However he struggles if he has to come up with the main idea of the story he reads. This is also his problem when doing story problems in math. He gets great grades and tests good enough to not be held back, but his reading scores are low like right on the border. I feel that reading comprehension needs to be taught better than it is now. They're fantastic at teaching math with the new curriculum my child is very advanced in math skills as well as many other children I meet. Yet it seems most kids nowadays struggle to understand concepts.