School Matters asked last week if the State Board of Education was ready to drop the rule that Indiana schools must retain third-graders for failing a reading test. We got a quick answer: Not yet. The board turned back a request Friday by Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz that it initiate the process of revising the state reading rule.
Ritz had just started explaining her proposal when board member Dan Elsener cut her off. “It looks like we’re changing horses too often here,” he said. Board member Tony Walker told Ritz she was wasting her time because no one would make a motion to reconsider the rule. (See Scott Elliott’s Indy Star story for more).
Ritz argued that starting the lengthy rule-making process would trigger a conservation in which the board could refine the rule and improve reading instruction – a topic about which the superintendent is passionate. But the board wasn’t hearing her. Instead it agreed to discuss the issue informally prior to its Aug. 7 meeting. Members could signal then if they’re ready to revisit the reading rule.
Oddly, the word “retention” wasn’t used in the somewhat tense exchange Friday between Ritz and the board. But grade-level retention is at the core of Indiana’s reading rule – and retention has been, for years, a contentious topic in education policy.
Research is mixed, at best, on whether forcing struggling students to repeat a grade is likely to help them catch up academically. But even if holding a child back is sometimes the right thing to do, it seems clear it should be a decision made by parents and teachers – not the result of the child’s score on a single test.
And apart from academic effects, there’s considerable evidence that retention can harm the social and emotional development of children. A recent study by Umut Ozek for the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, for example, finds that students who were held back for failing Florida’s third-grade reading test were significantly more likely to be involved in “disciplinary incidents” or suspensions for the next two years. The effect was especially strong for poor children.
It’s worth revisiting how Indiana’s reading rule came to be. Back in 2010, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett asked the legislature to pass a law requiring schools to flunk third-graders if they didn’t pass a reading test. Legislators refused. Instead they approved Public Law 109, which called on the Department of Education to implement a plan for teaching kids to read by third grade, with retention “as a last resort” and in “appropriate consultation with parents or guardians.”
So Bennett went to the State Board of Education, whose members were appointed by Daniels, and got it to create an administrative rule, with the force of law, that does what the legislature wouldn’t do.
It’s possible for a child who fails to pass the test, called IREAD-3, to move on to fourth grade. But the student would have repeat third-grade reading instruction and be tested again as a third-grader on ISTEP math and language arts exams.
Probably some schools are trying to finesse the situation and do what’s best for children regardless of their IREAD-3 score. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a harsh and misguided policy. The State Board of Education should change it sooner rather than later.