Last year the Indiana legislature considered a proposal to retain students in third grade if they failed the reading section of the ISTEP-Plus exam. But lawmakers decided not to approve the proposal, citing cost concerns.
Now the State Board of Education is about to adopt the same requirement as an administrative rule. If there are costs, the Department of Education says, they will fall on local schools, which will just have to reallocate funds in order to pay them.
The state board will conduct a public hearing on the rule at 10 a.m. Thursday (Jan. 20) at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis. It could then adopt the rule at any future meeting. The proposed rule can be read online, as can a DOE summary and FAQ.
In addition to retention, the rule requires schools to implement reading plans that spell out goals for student achievement and interventions for students who aren’t on track. Schools will have to provide 90-minute daily uninterrupted blocks of reading instruction in the primary grades, and most will have to use a research-based core reading program certified by the state.
There are logistical issues to implementing these plans, but it’s the hammer of mandatory retention – arguably punishing kids for failing a single test – that causes concern for some educators.
“I totally agree with the goals, and that we need to have students reading by third grade,” said Cameron Rains, director of elementary instruction for the Monroe County Community School Corp. “But looking at retention and what that does, I don’t know why that is the solution you want for students.”
When the legislature didn’t approve the third-grade retention proposal last year, it instead directed the board of education and the superintendent of public instruction to develop a plan to improve students’ reading skills by third grade. It said retention could be part of the plan “as a last resort.”
But is the proposal really looking to retention as a last resort?
It does call on schools to pursue other strategies – including an extended school day and year, tutoring after school and on Saturdays, guided help from parents, and summer school – before holding kids back. It also suggests that retention doesn’t have to mean repeating the entire third grade. Schools may choose to retain students in reading but let them move on to fourth grade in other subjects.
But other than that, there’s no wiggle room. Students who don’t pass the ISTEP reading test (which hasn’t yet been developed) must be retained. The only exceptions are for students who are in special education, have already been retained two or more times, or are non-English speakers.
Like many current state education reforms, the retention proposal follows the lead of Florida and former Gov. Jeb Bush. In 2003, that state started requiring retention of third-graders who didn’t pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Not surprisingly, Florida fourth-graders’ reading scores improved. But some studies have suggested that gains for retained students don’t last. Indeed, scores for Florida eighth-graders have been flat on reading tests for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (Indiana eighth-grade NAEP reading scores have been flat too, but they are higher than Florida’s).
School Matters raised some of these concerns with Lauren Auld, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, who sent back a response from the department’s reading experts. They said, in effect, that improving reading is important enough to justify the risk.
“Our goals are to both aggressively promote reading comprehension and improve graduation rates in our schools,” the officials said. “Anything less, such as maintaining the status quo, is unfair to the parents and students to whom we should all defer.”