More Michigan third graders could be held back under reading law

A child reads a picture book about Abraham Lincoln.

Parents of nearly 5,700 Michigan students are getting some unwelcome news: Their third graders could be held back from moving on to the fourth grade because of low reading scores.

That’s up 60 percent from the number of students who were eligible to be retained last year.

The Michigan Department of Education attributes the increase to a larger number of students taking the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress this year. Ninety-eight percent of students took the third grade English language arts M-STEP exam, up from 71 percent last spring. Scores on the reading portion of that test determine eligibility for retention under the state’s controversial “read by grade three” law.

But that only partially explains the increase. Scores declined, too. 

This year, 5.8% of those who took the test scored at least one grade level behind, making them eligible for retention. That’s up from 4.8% last year.

It is unclear how many of those students will actually be held back under the law, which provides wide latitude for parents to request exemptions. Administrators granted them liberally last year, holding back only 0.3% of those eligible for retention. 

Administrators might not be as lenient in a school year with fewer school closures, quarantines, and other pandemic-related disruptions.

“Last year, there was a general acceptance of the fact that kids didn’t have an opportunity to learn to the extent they would normally,” said Katharine Strunk, director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University. “It’s unclear to me how districts will respond now that there’s been more of a return to normalcy,” she said. 

State Superintendent Michael Rice said a single test score should not determine whether a student repeats third grade.

“Retention decisions should be on a student-by-student basis, in consultation among parents, teachers, and administrators,” he said. “In general, however, the idea that a given score on a state assessment should generate retention makes no sense. Student performance in multiple ways should be considered before a decision to retain a student.”

The state Center for Educational Progress and Information began mailing letters to parents on May 18.

The K-12 Alliance of Michigan, which opposed the law from the outset, hopes few students are retained.

“Holding a child back can be extraordinarily harmful to their academic success,” said Bob McCann, executive director of the alliance. Individualized instruction, tutoring, and reading coaching are better solutions, and schools are already offering them, he said. 

Rice agreed, adding that smaller class sizes, strong teacher training, and summer school are also more helpful than retention, as are well-trained school librarians, specialized help for students with dyslexia, and a longer school year.  

Across all grade levels tested, 96% of students took state assessments this year, up from 70% last year. The MDE is expected to release results of those tests in early fall.

“It’s great to see higher participation rates this year — one more indication that higher percentages of parents, students, and staff are comfortable in schools,” Rice said. 

Fewer students took standardized tests last year because they must be given in person, and many students were learning remotely.

“It’s a positive sign to see more children in school on a regular basis, where they are able to interact with one another and their teachers to help them grow, learn, and thrive in a wide range of ways.”

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at

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