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Library books at Earhart Elementary-Middle School in southwest Detroit.

Library books at Earhart Elementary-Middle School in southwest Detroit.

Anthony Lanzilote/Chalkbeat

These students would be hit the hardest under Michigan’s new third-grade retention law

Charter school students, black students, and students with disabilities would be more likely to be held back if Michigan’s tough new third-grade retention law were in place today, according to Michigan State University researchers.

The MSU researchers recently released data showing how students in the state would have fared under the law and based on performance from the 2017-18 school year M-STEP exam. The law, which requires that schools hold back third graders whose scores on the state’s standardized exam show they are more than one year behind in reading, goes into effect in the coming school year. 

The researchers estimate that overall, between 2% and 5% of students — or 2,000 to 5,000 students —  would be retained. 

Michigan’s Read by Grade 3 law was adopted by lawmakers in 2016 in an effort to turn around poor academic performance in reading.

The MSU data sheds light on how the reading law will impact specific groups of students:

  • As many as 10.7% of black students would have been eligible for retention. That compares to as many as 4.7% of Hispanic/Latino students, 2.6% of white students and 2.1% of Asian students.
  • As many as 9.5% of students with disabilities would have been eligible, compared to 3.6% of students without disabilities.
  • As many as 6.5% of economically disadvantaged students would have been eligible, compared to 1.5% of non-economically disadvantaged students.
  • As many as 7.1% of students attending a charter school would have been eligible, compared to 4% of students attending traditional public schools.

The actual number of students forced to repeat the third grade is expected to be lower because schools can apply “good cause exemptions.”

Overall, the law allows for exemptions for a handful of reasons. A special education student’s education plan — which spells out how they are to be educated — may allow for an exemption, or a student with limited English speaking skills who has had less than three years of instruction in English may be eligible for one. Other cases that allow exemptions include for a student receiving intensive reading intervention for two or more years who was previously retained, or a student who has only been enrolled for less than two years and wasn’t provided with an appropriate reading improvement plan in the previous school setting. In some cases,  an exemption might be granted if a student’s parent requests one or if  the superintendent or chief administrator believes it’s in the child’s best interests.

The Michigan Education Research Institute — which includes researchers from MSU, the University of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Education, and the state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information — will be conducting the research on the law.

Katharine Strunk, co-director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at MSU, said the researchers will likely provide annual reports on their work to the state education department, as well as their advice for improving the law.

Joshua Cowen, co-director of the MSU policy center, said in a news release that the research will be unprecedented in its scope “and will provide a much-needed indicator for policymakers in other states.”

“We’re not just providing a backward glance at some law or program years after it was created. Instead, we’re working with the state in real time to determine how the law is working and how it’s not,” he said.

Read the full MSU report below.