Was the Indiana State Board of Education just complying with the wishes of the Legislature when it adopted a rule last year that says third-graders must be retained if they don’t pass a reading test? Not according to the author of the bill in question.
Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, told School Matters that lawmakers clearly weren’t saying kids should be held back on the basis of their performance on a single test.
“The state superintendent and board of education essentially usurped what we said we wanted done as a legislature,” he said. “They went beyond the intent of the legislation.”
Porter was chairman of the House Education Committee in 2010, and in that role he was the lead sponsor of HEA 1367 – also known as Public Law 109 — which called for for improving reading skills for students in primary grades.
The legislation, Porter said, was a compromise that reflected strong reservations about the push by Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett to require students to pass a reading test in order to be promoted to fourth grade. It said retention should be used only as a last resort.
Porter said lawmakers were aware of research showing that students who are held back are much less likely to graduate from high school, and they also questioned implementing such high-stakes accountability when Indiana trailed other states in funding early-childhood education. Some legislators, he said, were concerned about the cost of the Daniels-Bennett proposal.
The reading test, called IREAD-3, was given for the first time last month. Results are expected in May.
Given that Bennett pushed for test-based retention and testified in favor of the approach, it’s a bit odd that the Department of Education seems at times to put responsibility for the policy on the legislature.
A DOE web page explaining IREAD-3 says the test results from the legislature’s approval of “Public Law 109, which ‘requires the evaluation of reading skills for students who are in grade three beginning in the Spring of 2012 to ensure that all students can read proficiently before moving on to grade four.’” It appears that many Indiana elementary schools have cut-and-pasted that language to their own websites.
It’s not clear what the DOE is quoting in that statement, but it’s not quoting PL 109. What the law says, actually, is that the state superintendent and board of education shall develop a plan for improving early reading skills, including “a method for making determinant evaluations by grade 3 that might require remedial action for the student, including retention as a last resort, after other methods of remediation have been evaluated or used, or both, if reading skills are below the standard. Appropriate consultation with parents or guardians must be part of the plan.”
In a recent public affairs program on WTIU in Bloomington, Wes Bruce, the department’s chief assessment officer, explained IREAD-3 this way: “The legislature chose to put in place a law that mandated this test and made third grade the benchmark.”
The law may have authorized the department to create IREAD-3 as a “determinant evaluation.” But it seems like a stretch to say the legislature “mandated this test” – and even more so to suggest lawmakers called for retaining students who fail the test.
Understandably, there’s starting to be some push-back against the idea that students should flunk a grade based on their performance on a single 40-question exam.
John Ellis, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, tells Education Week that the state board “overreached” on the issue. Ellis says school districts should consult with parents to decide whether a child who fails IREAD-3 should be held back.
In the same article, Steven Yager, superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools in suburban Fort Wayne, says his district plans to follow the law, not the state board rule. “‘Last resort’ means it’s a combined agreement with the parents and the school district. … Until we’re told to do something different, that’s the way we’re going to handle it,” he says.
Finally, as the Bloomington Herald-Times reports today (subscription required), Monroe County parents involved with the Indiana Coalition for Public Education have created an online petition calling for an end to IREAD-3. You can sign it here.
Be sure to read the comments posted by the petition’s signers. They reflect the concerns that the State Board of Education could have considered before adopting the rule, but apparently chose to ignore.