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