Study: “Following the Letter of the Law: 2020–2021 Retention Outcomes Under Michigan’s Read by Grade Three Law”
Authors: Andrew Niel Utter (Michigan State University), John Westall (Michigan State University), Katharine O. Strunk (Michigan State University)
Embargoed until: 12:01 a.m. CT Friday, April 14
This study will be presented at the place-based component of the 2023 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
Session: Minding the Gap in Accountability Policy Implementation
Date/Time: Friday, April 14, 2:50 p.m. – 4:20 p.m. CT
- Under Michigan’s “Read by Grade Three” grade retention law, school districts in 2020–21 disproportionately retain economically disadvantaged students, suggesting that students from more advantaged backgrounds avoid retention, potentially though better advocacy by their families.
- While retention-eligible economically disadvantaged students are more likely to be retained than their peers just above the test-score cut-off, retention-eligible non-disadvantaged students are no more likely to be retained than their peers just above the cut-off.
- Nineteen states, including Michigan, have early literacy policies that require grade retention for third-grade students who do not perform at a specific level on the states’ end-of-year summative English Language Arts achievement tests.
- Michigan’s law requires districts to retain students in third grade if they do not meet a specified cut-point on the state’s end-of-year standardized achievement test, the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP).
- However, students who score at or below the cut-point may qualify for “good cause exemptions,” allowing them to be promoted to fourth grade despite their M-STEP score, with additional intensive academic assistance.
- The authors found that Black and economically disadvantaged students were more frequently eligible for retention and more frequently retained than their peers.
- After controlling for students’ test performance, the authors found no evidence that districts disproportionately retained Black students at significantly higher rates than other similarly performing students. However, after controlling for students’ test performance, the authors found that districts disproportionately retained economically disadvantaged students in comparison to their peers from more advantaged backgrounds.
- While retention-eligible economically disadvantaged students were more likely to be retained than their peers just above the test-score cut-off, retention-eligible non–disadvantaged students were just as likely to be retained as their peers just above the cut-off.
- “Our results provide evidence that students from more advantaged backgrounds avoid retention, possibly through better advocacy by their families,” said study coauthor Katharine O. Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. “Given what we know about the potentially negative impact of retention policies on students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, our findings are highly relevant to policymakers and education leaders.”
- The authors note that wealthier students in Michigan also potentially have more resources to switch schools to avoid grade retention, as retention decisions are made at the district rather than the state level.
- Previous research has found mixed evidence on the effectiveness of grade retention in improving short- and long-term outcomes and on the potential impact on student self-efficacy, sense of belonging, and future criminal activity. Moreover, there are concerns that retention will disproportionately impact traditionally disadvantaged student groups, resulting in disproportionate harm.
- The authors analyzed administrative data from the Michigan Department of Education on 100,054 third-grade students during the 2020–21 school year.
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