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Michigan Reading law would hold back almost 5,000 third graders if took effect today

Students line up outside Harrington Elementary.
April Van Buren
Michigan Radio

If Michigan’s Read by Grade 3 retention law went into effect for this fall, nearly 5,000 third graders would repeat the third grade, according to Michigan State University researchers.

MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) reviewed the 2017-2018 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, to get their estimates of literacy. They found that between 2% and 5% of third graders are not proficient in reading. The rates of students that would need to repeat 3rd grade are higher for black students at between 7% and 11%, special education students are at about 10% and for students in Partnership Schools- the lowest performing  schools in the state, between 12% and 20%.

Katharine Strunk, co-director of EPIC and professor of education policy, says although the retention portion of the law has a lot of opposition, it may be useful for children who are very far below the cutpoint and are truly struggling, and whose challenges may impact their ability to learn in all subjects in later years.

“If you're very far below the cut point and you really can’t read or understand at grade level, it’s going to just compound over the rest of your life,”she said. “So for those kids, socially promoting them might just not be in their best interest.”

The  U.S. Department of Education ‘s Institute of Education Sciences gave the Michigan Education Research Institute- a partnership between MSU, University of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Education and the state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information, almost $5 million to evaluate the law’s effects.

Strunk says Governor Gretchen Whitmer is unsupportive of making so many students repeat the third grade.


Joshua Cowen, co-director of EPIC, said Michigan is one of 16 states that has enacted laws to retain students that aren’t reading proficient, and the only one to do extensive research on it.


Strunk says that studies have shown adverse effects of retention for some students, but there are a lot of variations.


“Before the end of third grade, you're learning to read, and by the end of third grade you should be able to read to learn.”  

Clarification: An earlier version of this story paraphrased Katharine Strunk in such a way that made her position on retention unclear. We have updated the story.

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