Educators, experts say retention, exemptions in 3rd grade reading law are ‘inequitable’

By: - December 19, 2022 4:31 am

Getty Images

Dan Applegate, superintendent of Niles Community Schools in Berrien County, said his district had 10 third-grade students out of nearly 300 who tested below the state’s cutoff point for reading proficiency last school year.

Under Michigan’s Read by Grade 3 law, the 10 students were eligible to be held back for another school year. But due to the state’s broad exemptions for retention, all 10 students went on to the fourth grade. 

The Read by Grade 3 law, signed into law last decade by former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, aims to improve Michigan’s low literacy rates by requiring schools identify struggling students through students’ scores on the English Language Arts portion of the state’s standardized test, the M-STEP. The law also includes required interventions for struggling students, like literacy coaches and individualized learning plans. 

Applegate said the retention piece of the law “is what I struggle with.”

“I don’t know that retention is really any assistance to a student. I’m not sure I understand how that helps, and a lot of research suggests that it doesn’t,” Applegate said. 

The law states that students who test at or below 1,252 points on the ELA portion of the M-STEP can be retained in third grade or promoted to fourth grade through a good-cause exemption, which include:

  • English learners with fewer than three years of English language instruction
  • Students with disabilities 
  • Students who were previously retained and received intensive reading interventions for two or more years
  • Students who have been enrolled in their current district for less than two years and were not provided with an appropriate individual reading improvement plan (IRIP)
  • Students who demonstrated proficiency in other subject areas and/or through an alternative assessment or portfolio of work
  • Students whose parents requested an exemption provided their superintendent agrees that retention is not in the student’s best interest.

The 2021-22 school year was the first year the law was in effect after being pushed back a year due to concerns about COVID-19-related learning loss and a temporary federal waiver of standardized testing in March 2020.

The bill did not get much support from Democrats who oppose the retention portion of the legislation.

It’s likely the law will be brought up for discussion next year with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Democrats leading both the House and Senate. During her 2020 State of the State address, Whitmer called the law “punitive” and said during a roundtable hosted by MLive in 2019 that she wants to “get rid of” the law. 

Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), a former teacher who has previously introduced legislation to amend the law to remove the retention piece, said it’s one of her goals to strengthen the law next term.

“I want to improve what’s in it that actually helps kids to read. Like, I love the funding for the literacy coaches. It has good things in it,” Polehanki told the Advance earlier this month. “However, the flunking of a third grade student based on one test they take in the spring isn’t one of them.”

According to a recent report from Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC), retention-eligibility rates increased from 4.8% in the 2020-21 school year to 5.8% in the 202-22 school year. Despite nearly 6% of third graders flagged as retention-eligible, districts retained just .6%, or 545 students, of all tested students. 

“When you put a plan in place that allows these kinds of exemptions, it will be leveraged by the haves to the detriment of the have-nots,” said Josh Cowen, an education policy professor at Michigan State University (MSU). “There’s no more deliberate, direct source of policy inequality to Michigan Education right now than that exemption component.”

While most eligible third-grade students were not held back, Black students were more likely to be retained than their white classmates. 

Districts retained retention-eligible Black students at higher rates than students of any other race or ethnicity in 2021-22 and were 2.4 times as likely to retain Black than white students, according to the EPIC report. 

Cowen said the state is “basically saying they’re just going to penalize these kids in urban environments who have no access to at-home social capital,” meaning a parent who is engaged enough in their students’ learning to ask the school for an exemption. 

“We’re going to penalize them and send them back. And anybody who has the means to pick up the phone and call the superintendent is going to get a parent exemption,” Cowen added.

Susan Schmidt, a literacy tutor and retired teacher from Ann Arbor, said there needs to be better literacy funding for schools that serve higher populations of Black students and students learning English as a second language to close achievement gaps.

Getty Images

“Resources are necessary to do this work. And we have data that show that Michigan’s current school funding system is inequitable, particularly for our students who are most vulnerable —  where, frankly, it takes more resources to educate them because of other factors that are influencing that. That’s not their fault; it’s just the reality,” Schmidt said.

Applegate said that there are better ways to improve statewide literacy than retention, but schools need better funding to do so.

“It seems to me they are codifying something that we are already doing. And their argument could be that what we’re doing isn’t working,” Applegate said. 

“But we’ve been underfunded for years, for one. And two, if it’s not working, come show us. Come do an audit. Don’t retain the students for that. Come show us what you think we could do better. I’ll gladly try to improve,” he added.

Niles already uses local assessments to benchmark students and a three-tier system to identify and help students who are struggling to read, which includes providing reading interventionists to students. Applegate said about 40% of students in the district have individual reading improvement plans.

“I’d rather money be spent assisting districts or struggling students, to be able to provide some of the services that we’re providing. Maybe there’s some tweaks or changes, and we would appreciate the expertise. But this retaining of students provides no expertise and no research,” Applegate said. 

Educators point to some recent funding and education priorities that have passed through the Legislature and the governor’s office in recent years that have helped, like tripling the number of literacy coaches in the state.

“Is it enough? No. But guess what, it’s a step forward,” said Schmidt. “We cannot now step away from the continued urgency of this work. We need to see how these funds are actually spent, and how that actually translates into achievement for kids.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.