(The Center Square) – Only one out of 10 third-grade students deemed eligible for grade retention were held back last year, according to research released Tuesday by the Michigan State University Education Policy Innovation Collaborative and conducted on behalf of the Michigan Department of Education.
The EPIC report notes 548 third graders were retained last year, double the number from the previous year prior. All told, 5,648 students third-grade pupils were at or below 1,252 points on the M-STEP English Language Arts portion of the M-STEP level to trigger the retention component of a Read Before Grade Three Law.
RBGT was passed in 2016, but the retention component didn’t become effective until the 2020-21 school year. Student M-STEP test scores at or below 1,252 points may only advance to fourth-grade under a good-cause exemption, which includes students with fewer than three years of English language instruction; students with disabilities; students previously retained who have received two or more years of reading skill intervention; students new to the district thereby not provided with an individualized improvement plan; students proficient in other subject areas; or students provided exemptions as requested by parents or guardians as long as the school superintendent agrees to sign the waiver.
Student who did not take the M-STEP also cannot be retained.
“While we do not know why districts chose to retain more eligible students in 2021-22 than the year prior, it may be that administrators, educators, and parents or guardians were hesitant to retain students in 2020-21 as a result of their performance during the COVID-19 pandemic,” EPIC researchers stated. “While the low rates of retention in 2021-22 suggest a continued hesitancy to retain students who scored below a 1252 on the ELA M-STEP in 2021-22, it may be that the relatively higher rates of retention in that year are due to the return towards ‘normalcy’ in the 2021-22 school year.”
The report also identifies racial disparities in those students advanced to fourth grade and retained in the third grade.
“While districts promoted the vast majority of retention-eligible students in 2021-22, there were substantial disparities in districts’ reported retention decisions by student and district subgroups,” the authors report, and continue: “[D]istricts retained retention-eligible Black students (13.6%) at higher rates than students of any other race or ethnicity in 2021-22. Whereas white and Latino students experienced only marginal increases in retention rates between years, Black students experienced substantial increases relative to 2020-21. As such, disparities in retention rates between Black and white or Latino students grew larger between 2020-21 and 2021-22. For instance, in 2020-21, districts were twice as likely to retain Black students than white students, whereas, in 2021-22, districts were 2.4 times as likely to retain Black than white students.”
The report also notes disparities between students from economically disadvantaged homes and wealthier homes.
“As we saw in 2020-21, districts were less likely to retain students with disabilities and English learners than students not in these groups. This is consistent with the good cause exemptions available to these groups. However, both students with disabilities and English learners experienced increased retention rates in 2021-22 relative to 2020-21,” the authors wrote.
Schools that waited longer to return to in-person learning also experienced greater numbers of students scoring at or beneath 1,252 points on the M-STEP.
“Remote districts also experienced the largest gains in their retention rates, increasing from 7.6% in 2020-21 to 11.7% in 2021-22 (a 54% increase),” according to the report. “In contrast, hybrid districts retained a marginally smaller proportion of their retention-eligible students, and in-person districts retained only 2.6 percentage points (43%) more students in 2021-22 than in the year prior.”