NAEP results win praise for Indiana teachers and students

Indiana had a pretty good bump in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores that were released last week. Who gets the credit? It’s unanimous.

  • Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz: “This is yet another sign of the hard work and dedication exhibited by our educators, administrators, parents, and most importantly, students.”
  • Former state Superintendent Tony Bennett (via Twitter): “Indiana’s educators and students should be very proud of NAEP results. Your hard work is paying off!”
  • House Education Committee chairman Robert Behning: The gain “validates that we have a lot of great teachers.”

If only they had stopped there. Bennett and others also pointed to the policy changes that he pushed in Indiana. “I think the policy framework we put in place afforded schools the opportunity to expect more of children, and I applaud the fact our children have answered that call,” he told Chalkbeat Indiana.

Most of those polices are just now being implemented, or they’re on too small a scale to have a noticeable impact on NAEP scores – with one exception: The requirement that third-graders pass a reading test, called IREAD-3, to be promoted to fourth grade.  Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Will Indiana drop third-grade retention rule?

Arguably the most egregious policy pushed by former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was the requirement that third-graders be retained for failing a reading test. Now it looks like his successor, Glenda Ritz, is trying to get rid of that rule.

As of now, the posted agenda for Friday’s State Board of Education meeting includes a proposal to start revising the state rule governing reading instruction. The revision would strike the part that, with some exceptions, mandates retention of students who don’t pass the third-grade reading exam, called IREAD-3. Instead, the proposal says that, if a student doesn’t read at grade level by the end of grade 3, the school “shall, in consultation with the parents, determine if retention, as a last resort, should be implemented.”

The proposal also would drop a requirement that schools provide 90 minutes of uninterrupted, daily reading instruction. They would still have to provide at least 90 minutes of reading instruction a day, but it could be broken up. This seems to make sense. For a lot of young children, 90 minutes of uninterrupted anything can be tough medicine.

Daniel Altman, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said eliminating the third-grade retention requirement will align the reading rule with what state legislators intended when they passed a law, in 2010, calling on the Department of Education to create a plan for improving early reading instruction, including retention “as a last resort” and with “appropriate consultation with parents or guardians.”

“It’s important to have this conversation,” he said. “We want to have the best reading instruction in Indiana that we can possibly have.”

The State Board of Education in early 2012 adopted a rule that said kids who failed the third-grade test should be held back Continue reading

State releases IREAD-3 results

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett took a glass-is-84-percent-full approach when he released IREAD-3 test results today. And, yes, it’s a credit to Indiana teachers and students that 84 percent of the state’s third-graders passed the test.

But the fact remains that 12,000 children didn’t pass. And many of them will be retained in third grade, whether their parents and teachers think it’s the right thing to do or not.

Students who didn’t pass will get one more chance. Also, we don’t know how many will qualify for good-cause exemptions from being retained, because they are in special education, are English language learners, or have already been held back twice.

Bennett highlighted one charter school and three traditional public schools where 90 percent or more of third-graders passed IREAD-3 even though the schools have high percentages of poor or ELL students. That’s impressive.

But the fact remains that there’s a strong correlation between poverty and high rates of failure on standardized tests, including IREAD-3. Most of the school districts where more than 25 percent of students didn’t pass the test are those with high percentages of poor and minority students – including East Chicago, Indianapolis, Gary, Elkhart, Michigan City, South Bend and Marion.

National Public Radio’s StateImpact Indiana posted IREAD-3 results in a searchable database, along with a good quick report on the highlights. But one has to question the insistence by state officials that the good-cause exemptions are “broad enough that districts can determine which students truly need retention.” The exemptions are very specific and narrowly tailored – more so than those in Florida, which was Indiana’s model for the third-grade retention rule.

It’s also clear that test-based retention of third-graders isn’t what the Indiana General Assembly wanted when it passed legislation in 2010 calling for a plan to improve reading achievement. Yes, we should celebrate students who did well on IREAD-3 – and schools that pulled out the stops to help their students pass. But legislators, parents and educators should continue to question this policy.

Senator agrees: Indiana education board overreached with reading retention rule

Sen. Luke Kenley has affirmed that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and the Indiana State Board of Education went beyond the bounds of state law when they adopted a rule that requires third-graders to pass a reading test or face grade-level retention.

“I would just put the Department of Education and the State Board on notice that they’re clearly not in line with the words in the statute so they’re opening themselves up perhaps to a lawsuit or a complaint by somebody on those grounds,” the Noblesville Republican tells NPR’s StateImpact Indiana.

Kenley’s words echo what Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, told School Matters last month: that Bennett and the state board “essentially usurped” what lawmakers put in the 2010 legislation that called for ensuring children develop strong reading skills.

Both Kenley and Porter were members of the House-Senate conference committee that agreed to a compromise version of the bill, so if anyone knows what it was supposed to mean, they should. Kenley’s words could arguably carry even more weight because, like Bennett, he is a Republican, a member of the party that controls both the House and Senate.

And not just any Republican. He chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee as well as serving on the Education and Career Development Committee. By virtue of the latter appointment, he’s also part of the Select Commission on Education that the legislature created to review policies adopted by the state board and the Indiana Department of Education. Continue reading

Lawmaker: Board of Education disregarded legislative intent with IREAD-3

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. Continue reading

Indiana to retain students based on test scores despite lack of research support

Indiana schools are embarking this month on a massive experiment, one with potentially far-reaching consequences for thousands of young students.

Third-graders will be taking a new standardized test called IREAD-3, designed to measure whether they are reading at grade level. Most students who don’t pass – either now or in a re-test in the summer – will be forced to repeat the third grade.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on 8- or 9-year-old kids. And it’s not at all clear from the research that holding slow readers back will help them in the long run.

The Indiana reading program, given final approval in February by the State Board of Education, is modeled on an initiative that Florida adopted in 2002. Emily Richmond reports in The Atlantic that several other states, including Arizona and Oklahoma, are starting down the same path.

Indiana’s approach is even tougher than Florida’s, however. Indiana allows only three categories of good-cause exemptions from the no-pass, no-promotion rule: students with disabilities, students who aren’t proficient in English and students who have already been retained twice.

In Florida, there’s also an exemption for third-graders who can demonstrate, through a teacher-selected portfolio of written work, that they can read at grade level. In effect, Florida teachers may put a thumb on the scale for children who are ready for fourth grade but bomb the test. Not so in Indiana.

The state Department of Education has said that students who don’t pass could be promoted to fourth grade in other subjects; they just have to be retained in reading. But as a practical matter, that’s not likely to happen. The students will be coded by the state as third-graders, and they will be required to retake third-grade ISTEP-Plus exams in math and language arts the following year, even if they passed those tests the first time around.

Retention vs. ‘social promotion’

Supporters of test-based retention argue that “social promotion,” passing students to the next grade regardless of how much they’ve learned, causes them to fall farther behind their peers, until they have no hope of catching up. That’s especially true, they say, for students who don’t learn basic reading skills by third grade, after which they should move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

But even if you think social promotion is misguided, it doesn’t necessarily follow that retention should be based on a single test, ignoring the judgment of teachers and parents. Continue reading

Bennett: Retention rule holds kids accountable

We need to start holding 9-year-olds accountable, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said – that’s why they must be held back in third grade if they can’t pass a new state reading test.

The State Board of Education on Tuesday approved a reading rule that says schools must retain students in third grade if they don’t pass the test, called I-READ 3. The only exceptions are for special-needs students, non-English speakers and students who have already been retained twice. Parent and teacher assessments of whether children should be promoted won’t matter.

“When I’ve traveled around the state, I’m asked, ‘Where’s the accountability for parents and students?’” Bennett said. “This is accountability. One of the things we’ve learned in two years is that things happen when accountability occurs. What we inspect, they respect.”

Board members and Indiana Department of Education officials didn’t respond to – or even specifically acknowledge – objections that educators raised in public hearings last month. The educators cited research that shows academic gains made after retention don’t last; kids who are retained are two to 11 times more likely to drop out; and retention costs U.S. schools $14 billion a year.

The rule and an accompanying “reading framework” also require schools to intervene when children fall behind in reading and provide 90-minute, daily, uninterrupted blocks of time devoted to reading. Most schools will have to use “scientifically based” reading programs approved by the state.

Department of Education staff have suggested it may be possible to retain students in reading but pass them to fourth grade in other subjects; but it’s not clear how that would work. Continue reading

State board about to decide on third-grade retention rule

A proposed rule that would force schools to retain students who don’t pass a third-grade reading test could face a vote by the State Board of Education this week. The board meets Tuesday at 1 p.m. in Indianapolis.

The rule, which was the subject of a previous post on School Matters, also requires elementary schools to implement reading plans that include goals for student achievement and interventions for students who fall behind. Schools will have to devote 90-minute uninterrupted blocks of time to reading instruction in grades K-3 and use research-based reading programs.

The state board accepted comments on the proposal at public hearings on Jan. 20 and Jan. 25. The hearings, video of which can be viewed online, brought comments from reading specialists, principals, superintendents and representatives of the state associations of teachers and school administrators.

Thirteen people testified. And while some praised certain aspects of the rule, all 13 said unequivocally that it’s wrong to hold kids back based on results of a single test.

Speakers cited research showing that the academic gains children make after being retained don’t persist; that students are two to 11 times more likely to drop out of school if they are held back than if they aren’t; and that forcing students to repeat grades costs the nation $14 billion a year.

“There is no research that retention benefits children,” said Whitney Witkowski, principal of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School on the south side of Indianapolis. “There is a substantial body of research about the negative effects … Retention is not only ineffective but it punishes children.”

Several speakers suggested that, if Indiana wants to help kids learn to read, it should require kindergarten attendance and fund pre-kindergarten programs. And some pointed out that the retention mandate goes considerably further than the 2010 state legislation that called on the Department of Education to develop a rule to make reading instruction more effective.

Department of Education staff members are suggesting some changes to the proposed rule. One spells out that students should get a second chance to pass the yet-to-be-developed reading test, possibly after remediation in summer school, before they are held back. Another makes clear that the rule applies to charter schools as well as regular public schools.

But the pass-the-test or fail-the-grade language remains – the only exceptions are for special-needs students, non-English speakers and children who have already been retained twice.

Interestingly, when the State Board of Education has a hearing, members apparently don’t need to show up. Who knew? Not a single board member was present on Jan. 20, when weather was apparently an issue. On Jan. 25, David Shane was the only board member on hand.

Presumably the other board members can watch the video of the hearing and read testimony submitted in writing. Let’s hope they do, and that they consider the issue with an open mind.

Proposed rule would retain third-graders if they fail state reading test?

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.” Continue reading