Michigan researchers receive $5M grant to study impact of third grade reading law

July 12, 2019

When Michigan’s long-anticipated Read by Grade Three law goes fully into effect next school year, researchers will be watching closely to evaluate how it goes, and recommend changes along the way.

With a five-year, nearly $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, the Michigan Education Research Institute (MERI) will study how the reform is being implemented and how it affects students—particularly third graders who will be held back based on reading proficiency.

MERI is a partnership between Michigan State University, University of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Education and the state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information.

“This law will impact students and educators in every single school and district across the state. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to study how it is being implemented and the ways in which it is affecting educators and learners,” said Katharine Strunk, a principal investigator on the project, Clifford E. Erickson Professor of Education Policy and faculty co-director of MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC).

“We are particularly excited because this grant not only enables us to continue to provide research to inform education policy and practice, but also because it highlights the important role that the MERI partnership can play in helping to improve education outcomes in Michigan.”

The Read by Grade 3 (RBG3) law was passed in 2016 to address troubling early literacy patterns for children, including disproportionately low proficiency rates for economically disadvantaged students and students of color.

The controversial requirement to retain and provide extra support for students who are more than a grade level behind based on reading scores has received the greatest attention. Third graders during the 2019-20 year will be the first affected.

However, the legislation also put into place mandates to improve literacy instruction and achievement for all students in kindergarten through third grade. This includes literacy coaches hired by intermediate school districts; training for teachers; and other learning resources such as free online modules about Michigan’s Literacy Essentials.

Research in action

By partnering closely with educators throughout the state and state policymakers, researchers will be able to study all aspects of implementation and make recommendations for improvement based on initial results and annual data.

“This valuable research will help evaluate the influence this law was intended to have, both in providing reading supports to our students and the impact these supports and retention have on student reading achievement,” said Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles. “For Michigan to become a Top 10 education state, we need to improve student achievement and literacy skills. Giving our educators the right tools to reach that goal is essential.”

Michigan is one of 16 states to pass legislation that retains students who fail to read at grade level, but no other state has embarked on research as comprehensive, or collaborative, as what the MERI team plans.

If Michigan’s controversial Read by Grade 3 law went into effect today, it’s estimated between 2% and 5% – or 2,000-5,000 students – would be retained to repeat third grade.

Additionally, between 7% and 11% of African American third graders, up to 10% of special education students, and between 12% and 20% of students in Partnership Schools, the lowest-performing schools in Michigan, would have to repeat third grade reading.

This comes from a June 2019 EPIC report: Estimated Read by Grade 3 Retention Rates. More on the report can be found on MSU Today.

The team will study how the law affects students retained after third grade, as well as students who move to fourth grade but are identified to receive additional support, assessing how their reading scores change and whether they change schools.

How schools and districts across the state implement provisions of the law, including the ability to request waivers, will also be closely monitored.

Along with surveys of teachers and administrators, the team plans to conduct classroom observations to better understand changes in literacy practices used by K-3 teachers. The researchers expect their analysis to draw from new sources of data, including the collection of regular literacy assessments that are required within schools starting in kindergarten but never before shared at the state level.

“This project will not only allow policymakers to understand the statewide impact of the new legislation on key student outcomes, but also provide practitioners with information that can help them adjust student supports and classroom practices,” said Brian Jacob, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Education Policy at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy and a co-principal investigator for the project.

Collaborative team

MSU researchers Joshua Cowen, professor of education and co-director of EPIC, and Tanya Wright, associate professor of language and literacy, are serving as co-principal investigators on the project. Also collaborating are Eric Scorsone, associate professor and director of the MSU Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy, and Madeline Mavrogordato, associate professor of K-12 educational administration.

Additional co-principal investigators include Susan Dynarski, professor of public policy, education and economics at UM, Venessa Keesler, deputy superintendent of the Michigan Department of Education, and Thomas Howell, executive director of the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information.

The project is 99 percent funded by IES with a grant of $4,999,656.

Read more

A June 2019 report from EPIC calculates upper and lower bound estimates of the law’s retention rates to provide a range of potential outcomes under the law. See the Estimated Read by Grade Three Retention Rates report.