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Study finds few students were held back under a Michigan childhood literacy law

An elementary school classroom after hours.
An elementary school classroom after hours.

Researchers at Michigan State University say a state law that previously required underperforming students to repeat third-grade had a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged students.

The report examines the impact of Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law, which was adopted in 2016. The measure intends to provide requirements and resources to identify students struggling to read and improve early childhood literacy.

One part of the law required students who scored below state standards for M-STEP assessments between 2021 and 2023 to repeat third-grade. Lawmakers repealed that aspect of the policy last year.

MSU researchers with the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) found in a recent report that more than 92% of students who fell below the reading score cutoff did not repeat their schooling. Instead, they went on to fourth-grade because they obtained an exemption from their school districts.

Tara Kilbride, interim associate director of EPIC and co-author of the report, said interventions to help young children learn to read are critical.

“This needs to be a priority because literacy and literacy skills are so foundational to the rest of their education and much of their lives," she said.

According to the report, more than 5,000 students scored below the state cutoff. But only around 400 students were retained in third-grade.

Kilbride said more than 95 percent of those who repeated third-grade came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and more than 80 percent were students of color.

“Sometimes there are positive impacts from having that extra year of third-grade instruction," Kilbride said. "But in some cases, the benefits to students either only lasts a short period of time, or in some cases, research has shown negative impacts longer term on things like graduation rates.”

Charter schools also varied in how they applied the law.

Unlike public school districts, where 5% of students were kept in third-grade, about 17% of eligible students in charter schools were retained. The report states charter school administrators and staff were more likely to believe that the policy would improve literacy outcomes for students.

Arjun Thakkar is WKAR's politics and civics reporter.
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