Repeal of Michigan’s 3rd grade retention policy ready for Whitmer’s signature

A teacher works with students at a table, while one student in the foreground holds a book over the side of their face.
A Michigan bill that would repeal the state’s 3rd grade retention rule now awaits Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature. (Nic Antaya for Chalkbeat)

LANSING — Michigan’s Democratic-controlled House voted Tuesday to repeal the part of the state’s controversial third-grade reading law that required students who test more than a grade behind in reading to repeat third grade.

The repeal legislation, previously approved by the state Senate, is now headed toward the desk of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her likely signature. 

Reading laws with retention policies have become fairly common in recent decades as states seek to improve literacy early in students’ academic lives and reduce dropout rates. But critics contend the Michigan law is overly punitive, inequitable and ineffective. 

In truth, the so-called read-or-flunk law was not so absolute. The GOP-passed measure contained multiple loopholes that allowed most struggling students to proceed to fourth grade — though in practice, Black and low-income students who qualified for retention were far more likely to be held back than more affluent and white students. 

“The retention aspect of this law has been a threat hanging over our students’ heads,” state Rep. Nate Shannon, a Sterling Heights Democrat and former teacher, said before the vote. “Holding students back reinforces achievement gaps, racial inequality and disproportionately impacts low-income communities.”

All but one Republican voted against the repeal legislation, arguing that mandatory retention of struggling readers can help improve dismal student test scores and should not be disbanded before its impact can be fully assessed.

The repeal bill “removes tools that a district can utilize in their approach to one of the most important aspects of learning: failure,” said Rep. Brad Paquette, R-Niles. “This legislation is not data driven, yet contributes to a culture that runs away from failure rather than traversing through it and further adds on to a foundation of uncertainty around education policy here in the state of Michigan.”

The retention rule in the 2016 reading law, approved by then-Gov. Rick Snyder and a Republican-led Legislature, was supposed to take effect in 2020 but was delayed a year because the COVID-19 pandemic led to cancellation of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP.

Michigan schools held back a combined 773 third-grade students because of the law in 2021 and 2022. But administrators used broad exemptions in the law to advance another 9,657 students who would have otherwise qualified for retention, according to researchers at Michigan State University

Black students and those from low-income families are more than twice as likely to be held back compared with their white and wealthier peers who also were identified for retention because they struggled with reading, researchers found.

The legislation now awaiting Whitmer’s signature would repeal the third-grade retention part of the read-or-flunk law but retain other provisions designed to aid students who are struggling to read, including reading intervention services.

Public education groups have generally supported the repeal effort, and the MSU study found that only 26% of teachers, 9% of principals, and 8% of superintendents believe retention is an effective intervention.

As of last year, Michigan was one of 17 states with a third-grade reading retention law, in addition to eight others that allow for retention but do not require it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

With Whitmer’s signature, Michigan would join Nevada as the only other state to repeal mandatory retention provisions. Tennessee legislators have been considering changes to a stricter retention policy that takes effect this year.

The Michigan repeal effort comes amid continued academic struggles. The state’s fourth grade students last year recorded their lowest reading scores in three decades, according to results from spring testing of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationally representative and ongoing assessment which evaluates students’ knowledge and abilities in a variety of subjects including reading. 

Michigan’s fourth grade average scale reading score ranked 40th in the nation. Reading and math scores dropped from 2019 to 2022 in every state. Experts said it was no surprise given the extreme disruptions COVID-19 caused schools. 

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution, which is why educators develop individualized reading plans,” said state Rep. Lori Stone, D-Warren, who voted to repeal the retention law. 

“Arbitrarily retaining students results in an increased dropout rate and increased rates of incarceration. As such, continuing this policy of retention will continue to be counterproductive.”

The repeal legislation is the latest in a series of relatively quick actions by Democrats who in January took over both chambers of the Michigan Legislature for the first time in 40 years. 

The new liberal majority has already repealed a GOP tax on pension income, expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, moved up the state’s presidential primary date, advanced gay rights legislation and begun to take up gun control measures, among other things. 

On Wednesday, Democrats will begin another major policy debate as the House Labor Committee takes up union-backed legislation to repeal the state’s right-to-work law and restore worker wage guarantees for government-funded construction projects. 

Jonathan Oosting is a reporter for Bridge Michigan. You can reach him at joosting@bridgemi.com.

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