Report: Michigan 3rd Grade Reading Scores Fall During Pandemic

Roughly 5,650 Michigan students received reading scores low enough that they could be required to repeat third grade, according to a new report from Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC), the strategic research partner of the Department of Education and local school districts in Michigan.
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After two years of disruptions by the COVID-19 pandemic, 5.8 percent of third graders received reading test scores that make them eligible to be retained according to the law. // Courtesy of MSU
After two years of disruptions by the COVID-19 pandemic, 5.8 percent of third graders received reading test scores that make them eligible to be retained according to the law. // Courtesy of MSU

Roughly 5,650 Michigan students received reading scores low enough that they could be required to repeat third grade, according to a new report from Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC), the strategic research partner of the Department of Education and local school districts in Michigan.

After two years of disruptions by the COVID-19 pandemic, 5.8 percent of third graders who took the English language arts (ELA) Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP) received scores that make them eligible to be retained according to the law. This is a full percentage point higher than the percent of tested third-grade students who were one grade level behind in reading in 2021 (4.8 percent).

“More than anything, this shows us that the pandemic has taken a toll on many of Michigan’s students, and more are struggling with literacy in the third grade than were prior to the pandemic,” says Katharine Strunk, director of EPIC, and the Clifford Erickson Distinguished Professor of Education Policy in MSU’s College of Education. “Michigan’s schools and students will need increased investments and support to recover academically.”

Many parents report being upset that schools stayed closed for so long in Michigan, a reflection of the close ties between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the state, and labor unions. Many countries in Europe, for example, returned to in-class learning long before communities in America.

Based on the report, nearly 15 percent of tested Black third graders in Michigan are eligible for retention, as are 7 percent of Latino students, 9 percent of economically disadvantaged students and 11 percent of students with disabilities. These groups of students have notably higher retention-eligibility rates than their peers. For instance, Black students are 4.5 times more likely to be retention-eligible than their white peers, and economically disadvantaged students are 4.5 times as likely to be retention-eligible than their more advantaged peers.

Retention eligibility measures the percentage of tested students who scored 1252 or below on the third-grade ELA M-STEP (one grade level behind). Estimated retention measures the percentage of tested students who were retention-eligible but qualify for a good cause exemption and therefore should not be retained under the law.

There are also substantial disparities across types of schools and districts: One in four students in partnership schools — the state’s lowest-performing schools – are retention-eligible, compared to one in 20 students in non-partnership schools. Nearly 18 percent of students in districts that have previously scored in the bottom quartile of ELA achievement are retention eligible relative to 2 percent of students in the highest-scoring districts. These gaps have increased slightly since the 2020-21 school year.

In May and June, the state sent letters to the residences of all students eligible for retention under the law. It is not likely, however, that all these students will be held back because the law allows for good cause exemptions for some students, including English learners with fewer than three years of English language instruction; students with an Individualized education program or Section 504 Plan; students who were previously retained and received intensive reading interventions for two or more years; and students who have been enrolled in their current districts for fewer than two years and were not provided with an appropriate individual reading improvement plan.

Once the analysis accounts for the factors that may qualify students for good cause exemptions, an estimated 2.4 percent of tested third-grade students could be retained under the Read by Grade Three Law. This is slightly higher than the estimated 2.2 percent retention rate from the 2020-21 school year.

Districts that primarily provided remote instruction in 2020-21 had the largest share of students flagged for retention, based on their spring 2022 ELA M-STEP scores, with more than twice the retention-eligibility rates as districts providing in-person or hybrid instruction. These districts, however, would also have had higher retention-eligibility rates than in-person and hybrid districts in 2018-19 if the retention policy had been in effect at the time, suggesting that these gaps are driven in part by differences in district-average achievement that pre-date the pandemic.

Still, although retention-eligibility rates increased from 2018-19 to 2021-22 across districts in all three modality categories, districts that were primarily remote in 2020-21 experienced the largest increase in the share of students flagged for retention.

“It is particularly concerning that retention eligibility rates are higher for historically marginalized students and for those who learned remotely during the 2020-21 school year,” Strunk says. “The road to recovery will be longer and steeper for some students than others and the long-term implications of these disparities will be dire for both the individual students and the state if we do not work quickly to address them.”

In Related News, Pamela Good, cofounder and CEO of Beyond Basics, a nonprofit literacy organization in Detroit, issued the following statement regarding a recent drop in test scores across the nation:

“The drop in test scores over the last two years for our precious children is not surprising. Children have borne the worst of the pandemic — disrupted schooling, increased anxiety, and losing beloved trusted adults to illness.

“If there is any silver lining, it is that the students who have recently fallen behind are shining a light on those who have been reading below grade level for decades. We refer to these students as falling into the ‘literacy gap.’ In 47 states, only 40 percent of eighth graders are reading proficiently, according to the NAEP (nationsreportcard.gov). Fortunately, there is a solution.

“For decades, many students have been stuck because they have not received the intensive intervention they need and deserve. Our highest-intensity, one-on-one tutoring shows students are capable. It helps students achieve grade-level movement in reading in an average of six weeks. With intensive support and evidence-based strategies, all students can be brought up to speed quickly. Once students are literate, they can access their curriculum, and graduate ready to enter the workforce. This is how we as a nation can put the literacy crisis in our rearview mirror. Otherwise, struggling readers will stay behind, and more students will join their ranks with no way out.

“For 15 years, Beyond Basics has partnered with schools in vulnerable communities to provide a diagnostic assessment to students reading below grade level. This initial assessment is followed by an individualized reading plan delivered by trained tutors in daily hour-long sessions in our multisensory literacy method. A forthcoming longitudinal study shows that on average, participating high school students advance an average of two grade levels in reading.

“We owe it to the students who show up to school every day to get them reading so they can access their education. If we embrace literacy, what a silver lining it will be for our nation. Higher rates of literacy lead to better outcomes in health, education, and employment, ensuring the promise of a better tomorrow for the next generation. So, let’s get going.”

Since its founding in 1999, literacy nonprofit Beyond Basics has grown to become Michigan’s leading provider of holistic structured literacy intervention working in more than 20 locations, helping students advance in reading in an average of six weeks. Learn more at www.beyondbasics.org.

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