© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Third-graders in Michigan are still struggling to read despite state supports

Two young children leaning their heads on a book they're reading. One of them has a pen.
Andrew Ebrahim

According to the 2023 report from the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University, nearly 30% of third-graders do not know how to read at the appropriate grade level, even as the state creates new guidelines to foster literacy.

From third-grade on, students in the state are required to take a computer-based assessment known as the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP).

The standardized tests help schools identify students who are struggling to read and write at their grade level. Depending on the results, school officials can make recommendations to hold a student back.

According to the report, fewer students this year qualify to be held back in the third-grade.

“The not-so-great news is that we still see quite a few students who are scoring maybe a little bit above that cut point for retention, but still where the state recommends literacy support,” said Tara Kilbride, lead author of the report.

In 2016, the Michigan Legislature passed the "Read by Grade Three" law to allow students to repeat third-grade if they are more than one grade level behind.

Distribution of M-STEP score ranges for students in third grade students by year from 2019 through 2023
The Education Policy Innovation Collaborative
Distribution of M-STEP score ranges for students in third grade students by year

More than 25% of third-grade students qualify for literacy support under the "Read by Grade Three" law. The state mandates districts to offer extra resources and assistance to students who are one grade level behind, a policy applied to 5.6% of students in 2023.

However, schools are not obligated to extend supports to other students who may not be struggling as severely but still lag behind. About 20% of students fell into that category in 2023. In all, nearly 30% of third-grade students are not reading at appropriate grade level.

Bar graph of retention eligibility and estimated retention rates by race/ethnicity from 2019 to 2023
Education Policy Innovation Collaborative
Retention Eligibility and Estimated Retention Rates by Race/Ethnicity

Compared to white students, Black and Latinx third-graders in the state are failing at higher rates to reach grade level literacy.

“Students from these groups are also on average disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, more likely to be in schools and districts that didn't offer in person instruction for larger periods of time,” Kilbridge explained.

The research is unclear on the efficacy of holding back students from advancing grade levels. A 2001 meta-analysis study from the University of California, Santa Barbara concluded that retention does not provide greater benefits to students with academic difficulties than promotion to the next grade.

A 2018 study looking at the effects of retention through a 14-year period found that retention in elementary does not harm students in terms of their academic achievement or educational motivation, but does increase the odds that a student will drop out of school before obtaining a high school diploma. These effects were most observed among Black and Hispanic girls.

During the 2021-2022 school year, about 10% of students eligible for retention were held back.

“There’s several different types of exemptions that districts can offer – if they determine that retention isn’t the best course of action for a student,” said Kilbride. “But by far, the most common of those exemption types was simply a parent request.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a law to keep students who are not reading at a third-grade reading level from being held back. The law now requires that parents are notified if their child is not reading at the appropriate grade level. The schools are also required to provide additional supports and resources for the student who has fallen behind.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!