In Michigan’s largest district, 20% of third graders — nearly 800 students — would have been held back last year had Michigan’s tough literacy law been in place.

That’s well above the 4% percent of third graders who typically have to repeat the grade in the district.

The data provides a picture of what the district could experience during the coming school year, when schools across the state will have to comply with the law that requires schools to hold back third graders whose scores on the state’s standardized exam indicate they are more than one year behind in reading.

Michigan lawmakers adopted the retention law in 2016 to spur improvement in literacy. Results on a rigorous national exam show students in the state ranked near the bottom in literacy improvement. And on the state’s own exam, the most recent data show just 44% of third graders were proficient in English language arts. Michigan is one of nearly 30 states with some type of retention policy in place based on third grade literacy, according to an analysis by the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan education policy organization.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti estimated the number of students who would have been affected based on information the Michigan Department of Education recently shared with local school districts.

That information shows how a student would have to score on the state’s M-STEP English language arts exam to meet the third-grade reading expectations or to be eligible for retention.

“Although we do not believe that retention based on a test score alone is best practice and in the best interest of children, the cut score released by MDE appears to be fair as a starting point,” Vitti said last week.

Based on the state’s calculations:

  • A student would need a score of 1252 or lower to be eligible for retention. If that were in place last year, more than 5,200 third-graders — or about 5 percent of them — would have been eligible for retention statewide.
  • A student would need to score 1272 or higher to meet the third-grade reading requirement. Nearly 82,000 (77.5 percent) students statewide would have been OK last year.
  • A student scoring from 1253 to 1271 would not meet the third-grade reading requirement, but they wouldn’t be eligible for retention. Instead, they would be eligible for additional support. Last year, that would have affected 18,444 (17.5 percent) students statewide.

The actual number of students forced to repeat the third grade is expected to be lower because schools can apply “good cause exemptions.”

In the Detroit district, about 5 percent of the nearly 800 students who would have been eligible for repeating last year would have been exempted because of their special education or English language learner status, Vitti said.

Overall, the law allows for exemptions for a handful of reasons: A special education student’s education plan — which spells out how they are to be educated — allows for an exemption, a student with limited English speaking skills has had less than three years of instruction in English, a student has received intensive reading intervention for two or more years and was previously retained, a student has only been enrolled for less than two years and wasn’t provided with an appropriate reading improvement plan in the previous school setting, a student’s parent requests an exemption and the superintendent or chief administrator believes it’s in the child’s best interests.

School districts statewide are taking varying approaches to addressing the third grade reading law, and the exemptions likely will be a key part of it.

In Ann Arbor, Superintendent Jeanice Swift said the district is addressing the needs of struggling readers by diagnosing them early and providing them with more support and intervention over time, rather than by retaining them. Swift said that ensures “students are successful in early and continuing literacy throughout their educational experience.”

For those still struggling, Swift said, the district “will continue to increase the intensity, duration, and frequency of instructional supports and interventions. We do not intend the use of retention as a tool to aid literacy acquisition.”

Vitti said the Detroit district intends “to apply exemptions consistently and fairly to avoid retention for students who we would normally believe should not repeat third grade. The decision to retain students will rest with parents and teachers.”

He noted that the district’s work in the past two years has been to develop better systems for improving early literacy that has included training on standards, a new literacy curriculum, a tool to identify struggling readers, and intervention.

The district has worked with community leaders to launch “Let’s Read,” a program that so far has put hundreds of volunteers in elementary schools to provide one-on-one reading help for struggling students.