- Black and economically disadvantaged students, as well as girls, were all more likely to be retained in the 3rd grade in 2020-21 based on Michigan’s Read by Grade Three law, according to a new study presented on Friday by co-author Andrew Utter, a graduate assistant at the Michigan State University Education Policy Innovation Collaborative. The findings were shared during the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting in Chicago.
- The law, established in 2016 and reversed this month, required retaining students in the 3rd grade if they did not pass the state’s end-of-year English Language Arts achievement test. Michigan State Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who sponsored a bill reversing the original law, said the mandate was implemented unequally among students of color, the Detroit Free Press reported.
- The study found girls were 2 percentage points more likely to face retention compared to boys. Black students were 2.2 percentage points more likely than White students to be retained, and economically disadvantaged students had a 3.3 percentage point higher likelihood than non-economically disadvantaged students.
While a 2021 report from Michigan State University found 3rd grade reading achievement improved annually since the state’s law was passed, the latest study shows disparities occurred during its implementation.
Families could apply for exemptions, and their district’s superintendent would ultimately decide to approve or deny the move, Utter said. Overall, 5.4% of retention-eligible students were retained due to the law, according to the study.
Some qualifications for students and their families that allowed them to advocate for an exemption included if they were English learners, students with disabilities or students who were previously retained and received intensive reading interventions.
Previous studies have found the difference in the implementation of mandatory retention laws can be possibly explained by differences in advocacy by parents or school staff, Utter said. However, regarding efforts to extend outreach to historically underserved populations, the study said its findings suggest such moves to inform families about their options under the law were not enough to eliminate disparities.
Though these early literacy retention policies aim to improve student reading proficiency, experts say holding students back a year can do more harm than good.
Forty-one states have early literacy policies, and 22 of those include 3rd grade retention requirements, Utter said. Retention policies are also a very contentious topic, he added, and their long-term effects are currently unknown.
“The evidence on retention is incredibly mixed,” Utter said. “There are lots of different findings, and different contexts, different types of outcomes, different types of studies. The overall effects of retention are essentially null.”