Few Detroit third graders are held back under reading law, as district favors exemptions

A student holds a book in front of them while they sit at their classroom desk.

Nearly a quarter of the Detroit school district’s third graders last year performed poorly enough on state standardized reading exams that they were eligible to be held back under Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law. 

But barely a hundred students are actually repeating third grade this school year.

Until fall enrollment counts are complete, Detroit Public School Community District officials won’t have an official retention rate to compare with previous years. Before the pandemic, the percentage of third graders who were repeating the grade because of poor reading scores was close to 4%, and it dipped below 2% in 2020-21, when participation in testing was abnormally low. 

Still, the relatively low number of students repeating third grade this year reflects continued skepticism among district leaders, along with state education officials and academics, of using retention as a strategy to address concerns about literacy.

The 2016 law requires schools to identify and support K-3 students who are struggling with reading and writing; third graders may be retained if their scores on the M-STEP reading exam show them to be more than one grade level behind at the end of the school year. But in Detroit and statewide, the vast majority of students are granted exemptions that allow them to move on to fourth grade.

As part of its broader academic approach, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said, the district has sought to use “good cause” exemptions more liberally rather than hold students back. Students can get exemptions if they’re English language learners or special education students, if they are enrolled in a literacy intervention program, or if their parent or guardian requests one.

In deciding which students get held back, Vitti said, school and district officials review academic records, and schedule conferences with teachers, families and administrators to determine what are the best approaches. 

“We do not believe that a single standardized test score should determine the retention or promotion status of a student,” said Vitti.

The district’s thinking is in line with many state leaders, education groups and academics who say that holding back students does more harm than good.

“Holding a child back can be extraordinarily harmful to their academic success,” said Bob McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan. Individualized instruction, tutoring, and reading coaching are better solutions, and schools are already offering them, he said.

The percentages of Detroit Public Schools Community District students who achieved grade-level proficiency on the M-STEP exam were largely down in most grades and subject areas last spring, which district officials attributed to the impact of the pandemic as well as chronic absenteeism on student learning. The results mirrored declines across Michigan and nationwide.

Out of 3,722 third graders in DPSCD who took the M-STEP English assessment this past spring, 910 students, or 24%, were identified as eligible for retention under the reading law. Of those who took the exam, the district retained 107 students. 

Only about 9% of Detroit third graders who took the test performed at or above grade level, lower than before the pandemic.

Vitti said the results were “not a surprise to us,” adding that they reinforced the need for strategies the district has outlined to improve literacy and math instruction, such as “access to on-grade level work, dedicated time for small group instruction, and systematic intervention for students who are significantly below grade level.”

“We are supporting this approach in schools with more coordinated school improvement efforts across teams, including efforts to address the chronic absenteeism driving these results,” he said.

Besides the district’s current contracts with outside tutoring vendors Beyond Basics and Brainspring, which will provide one-on-one tutoring to more elementary school students this year, the district plan involves certifying teachers and academic interventionists to use Orton-Gillingham, a multi-sensory literacy approach to reading instruction typically used for students with dyslexia or other reading problems.

Statewide, roughly 5,700 Michigan third-graders were deemed eligible for retention because of low reading scores. That’s 5.8% of last year’s third-grader test takers, up from 4.8% the previous year.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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