In News Releases

For Immediate Release
October 9, 2018

Alex Rossman

With third-grade reading law, kids of color will face greater risk of being held back

LANSING—While the state’s overall M-STEP results dominated headlines last month, a new report released today by the Michigan League for Public Policy shows kids of color are struggling even more than their peers to meet literacy benchmarks and face greater barriers to academic progress. Paired with the state’s third-grade reading law, which takes effect in 2020 and is more stringent about grade retention for kids who can’t read, students of color will begin falling further behind.

The report, Race, place and policy matter in education, also exposes the challenges facing kids who are living in poverty and the growing issue of teacher diversity in Michigan. This is the latest piece in the League’s ongoing work to examine racial equity and disparities caused directly or indirectly by state and federal public policies.

“Students of color and those from families with lower incomes may be having a hard time passing a test, but it’s the lawmakers and policies that are supposed to serve them that are failing,” said Gilda Z. Jacobs, President and CEO for the Michigan League for Public Policy. “Policymakers need to better understand how their decisions are creating or perpetuating disparities, and the third-grade reading law is a prime example of that.”

According to the report, more than 8 of every 10 African American students and two-thirds of Latinx students are not proficient in English/Language Arts by the end of third grade based on the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP), the state’s most recent standardized test. Currently, African American children are nearly twice as likely to be retained in grade as their White peers, and the stakes of failing to read proficiently by third grade have risen even further as Michigan prepares to implement the new “Read by Grade Three Law” in 2020 that will make it more difficult for students to progress to fourth grade if they are not reading at grade level.

Children from families that struggle financially are also less likely to be proficient readers. Economically disadvantaged children are nearly twice as likely to not be reading proficiently by the end of third grade—a reality that decreases the likelihood of school success and sets the stage for another generation of young people who cannot find a foothold in the workforce.

The report also touches on teacher diversity—or the lack thereof—and the additional challenges it poses for kids of color, especially as their population numbers increase. One-third of Michigan students are children of color, and the percentage of students of Latinx, Asian and multiracial heritage is growing.

Despite growing evidence that children of color thrive when they have teachers and role models whom they can identify with racially and ethnically, Michigan teachers do not reflect the student body. While 1 of every 3 Michigan students is a child of color, more than 90 percent of teachers and 80 percent of school administrators are White. And the diversity of Michigan’s teaching workforce has not grown over the last decade, with the percentage of African American teachers actually declining.

Research shows that African American primary-school students matched to same-race teachers perform better on standardized tests and are more favorably perceived by their teachers. In addition, assigning African American boys to an African American teacher in the third, fourth or fifth grades significantly reduces the probability that they will ultimately drop out of high school—particularly for boys with the most economic disadvantages.

“Due to historic and systemic barriers, there are racial disparities in nearly every aspect of public policy, and our schools are no exception,” Jacobs said. “The League will continue to draw attention to these inequities in order to get policymakers to first understand them, and then work to remedy them.”

Racial disparities are a problem in higher education as well. A national report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released last week found that Michigan was one of the worst states in the country for college affordability for students of color.

To achieve equity, state policies and funding must fully recognize the higher costs of educating children in high-poverty schools, as well as address the barriers children of color encounter from the time of their birth. The Race, place and policy matter in education report’s recommendations for moving forward are to:

  • Consider the impact of potential budget and policy decisions on children of color and low-income communities.
  • Invest in efforts to reduce poverty and ameliorate the impact of poverty on learning.
  • Expand access to high-quality early learning and care programs.
  • Increase supports for early literacy.
  • Provide K-12 public schools the resources required to address the educational needs of children of color and those living with families with low incomes.


The Michigan League for Public Policy,, is a nonprofit policy institute focused on economic opportunity for all. It is the only state-level organization that addresses poverty in a comprehensive way.

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