MSU reports find 3,661 third-grade students flagged for retention; overall slower learning gains during pandemic

August 31, 2021

New research reports from Michigan State University find that Michigan students’ learning gains were slower during the pandemic with more than 3,000 students identified as needing to repeat third grade due to low reading scores.

The reports are from MSU’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, or EPIC, the strategic research partner of the Michigan Department of Education.

Group of school kids with protective face masks learning on laptop with their teacher during a class in the classroom.

Missing benchmarks?

For the first time in 2020-21, benchmark assessments such as the NWEA MAP Growth assessment­—the test used by the majority of Michigan school districts­—were required by the state as part of the “Return to Learn” law. Tests like the NWEA MAP were given at least twice during the year to measure student progress toward academic goals. The Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, which is taken in person, assesses students’ knowledge of grade-level material at the end of the year.

According to Katharine Strunk, director of EPIC, and the Clifford Erickson Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at MSU’s College of Education, these tests clearly found that students across the state missed critical opportunities to learn during the 2020-21 school year.

“As predicted, relatively high proportions of students performed significantly behind grade level on benchmark assessments that measure students’ progress in English language arts and math,” Strunk said. “This is particularly true in mathematics.”

The report also found that students who participated in benchmark assessments in both the fall and spring are more likely to be white and less likely to be economically disadvantaged or eligible for special education or English learner services, compared to the overall population of K-8 students in Michigan.

“Recent studies consistently show larger, negative impacts of the pandemic on student achievement and achievement growth for the same student groups that are underrepresented amongst Michigan student test-takers,” Strunk said. “Given these differences, the results discussed in this report likely overestimate student performance and learning growth during the 2020-21 school year.”

Retained for reading scores?

The second report released by EPIC is on Michigan’s Read by Grade 3 law. It also paints a concerning picture of student performance.

In June and July of this year, the state sent letters to the residences of 3,661 third graders that indicated the children scored 1252 or below on the reading portion of M-STEP and may have to repeat third grade because of their low reading scores.

As expected, the report shows that M-STEP participation was lower this year with only 71.2% of third-grade students taking the Grade 3 English Language Arts, or ELA, M-STEP, compared with 96.5% of third-grade students who took the test in 2018-19. Federal law requires 95% participation in standardized tests, but this requirement was waived in the 2020-21 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students enrolled in districts that only offered remote instruction in May of 2021 were much less likely to take the state assessment. In districts that reported providing primarily fully remote instruction, 22.1% of third-grade students took the Grade 3 ELA M-STEP. In districts that were not fully remote for example, offered in-person or hybrid instruction, 73.6% of third-grade students took the assessment.

Overall, 4.8% of the tested population of third-grade students are eligible for retention based on their Grade 3 M-STEP ELA scores. There are wide disparities in retention eligibility rates by race and ethnicity, with African American third-grade students the most likely to be eligible for retention and Asian and White students the least likely.

The third-grade students who took the M-STEP this year do not represent the full population of Michigan third-graders. They are less likely to be enrolled in districts that offered only remote instruction last spring, and were less likely to be Black, Latino/a, economically disadvantaged, or to be classified as students with disabilities or English learners. Moreover, third-grade students in Michigan’s lowest-performing districts took the test at lower rates than their peers.  

Notably, given that Grade 3 ELA M-STEP participation rates fell by 26.2% in 2020-21 relative to the prior administration in 2018-19, it is likely that the decrease in participation means that this is an underestimate of the true proportion of students who are at least one grade level behind in reading as measured by state assessments.

Test-taking disparities

As with the benchmark assessment outcomes, it is critical to understand these rates of retention eligibility in the context of disparities in test-taking this past spring, Strunk said.

Katharine Strunk Photo
Katharine Strunk

“African American, Latina and economically disadvantaged third-grade students and those in Michigan’s lowest-performing districts are far more likely to be reading below grade-level,” Strunk said. “These are the same students who were less likely to take the test. It is likely that more students—and especially more Black, Latino and low-income students—are struggling with literacy than our results show.”

However, it is not likely that all these students will be held back since 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 district for less than two years and were not provided with an appropriate individual reading improvement plan. The report accounts for several factors that qualify students for retention and finds that the lower bound estimate is that 2.2% of all tested third-grade students could be retained under the Read by Grade Three Law.

“Whether or not one believes that retention will help third-graders to improve their literacy, what these figures show is the substantial inequity that exists in the educational opportunities provided to students along race, ethnicity and income lines,” Strunk said. “And these inequities were almost certainly exacerbated throughout the pandemic. These numbers—and particularly the disparities in which students are scoring low enough to be flagged for retention—should serve as a red flag to educators and policymakers, reminding them of the important work to be done to improve all Michigan students’ literacy.”

This article originally appeared on MSU Today.