State board balks at reconsidering Indiana’s fail-the-test, flunk-the-grade rule

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.

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4 thoughts on “State board balks at reconsidering Indiana’s fail-the-test, flunk-the-grade rule

  1. I feel children should read at or above grade level. Reading comprehension is very important. One test should not determine if a child passes or fails. I’ve found that most textbooks are at or above the grade level they are for. Who tested the reading test, to check, to see if it is strictly at 3rd grade level.

  2. Like all the other “reformer” ideas, this falls most harshly on poor kids whose parents are least able to advocate for them. It’s really easy to tell a kid he flunks if he doesn’t pass a particular test. It’s a much heavier lift to help kids learn to read & kids living in poverty carry that burden to school every day. The reformers want no part of providing schools with what’s needed to meet the needs of all kids.

    The State Board of Ed (Mitch’s lackeys) ought to be ashamed of themselves for their arrogant behavior toward Superintendent Ritz & with that the people of Indiana who voted for her.

    Mitch & Tony’s destructive K-12 education policies (destructive toward schools not the edu-business crowd) will stay with students in Indiana until voters send those in Indianapolis who supported them back home.

  3. The research is overwhelming – and has been for many years – that retaining students once increases the likelihood of their dropping out by 50%. Retaining them twice increases their
    likelihood of dropping out by 90%. Kids need remedial instruction as soon as deficiencies are noticed – not a year later. Transitional classes for kids who don’t need to repeat a whole year but aren’t quite ready for the next grade are also helpful but funds for that have been eliminated,
    as have classroom aides, small class-sizes, summer school, alternative ed. for kids who don’t succeed in traditional programs, Reading Recovery programs, and more.

    Tony Bennett and the State Board of Ed. took action which the legislature rejected. Surely that is not legal. Any parent of a child retained in 3rd grade based on a single reading score would likely have cause to sue the state.

    Glenda Ritz turned around her school’s performance in multiple areas when she convinced her principal and colleagues to adopt the reading program she recommended. That makes much more sense than the failure and expense of repeated testing and retention.

    It’s too bad the State Board wouldn’t even let Supt. Ritz finish her comments. Gov. Pence should remove them for unprofessional conduct and lack of intellectual curiosity in hearing what a nationally-recognized, award-winning teacher of reading has to say. Most of these folks were appointed by Gov. Daniels and have copied his preference for censorship over information.

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