Indiana legislation could hold back thousands of third graders who can't read

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers have avowed to reverse the state's long declining literacy rates with legislation targeting early elementary school years. Almost halfway through the legislative session, state Senators advanced a sweeping bill Thursday that could hold back thousands of third graders who do not pass the state's reading exam.

Republicans have balked at those who have labeled the measure a “retention bill,” saying students need the intervention now.

“Retention is the absolute last resort if we've exhausted all other methods to help struggling readers,” the bill’s author, state Sen. Linda Rogers, told lawmakers.

The bill, which has the support of Gov. Eric Holcomb, Republicans who control the House chamber and the Indiana Department of Education, now advances to the House.

Indiana's proposal was partially inspired by the “ Mississippi miracle,” a term referring to the success of the Southern state in improving literacy scores over the last decade. The gains have been attributed in part to a third-grade retention policy, early intervention and the science of reading.

On par with many states in the country, Indiana changed how reading is taught to elementary school children last year and implemented a phonetic strategy often referred to as the science of reading.

According to the Indiana Department of Education, about 18% of third graders did not pass Indiana’s reading test, IREAD-3, last year. Current Indiana policy is to keep these students from being promoted, but GOP lawmakers say exemptions are too widely applied. Department of Education data show more than 96% of students who did not pass the reading test were advanced to the fourth grade.

Of the approximately 14,000 students who did not pass last year, only about 400 were retained in the third grade. The state has set a goal to have 95% of students pass IREAD-3 by 2027.

Indiana’s literacy rates have been on the decline since the 2014-15 school year, with a six-point fall between the 2018-19 and 2020-21 school years.

The bill approved by the Senate would require second-grade students to take the reading test – which is currently optional – as an early indicator of their progress. If they pass, students do not have to take it again in the third grade.

The legislation outlines individual work to be completed with struggling students and summer schooling for students who do not pass. If a student does not pass in the third grade, they have the chance to attend summer school again and take the test one more time.

If a student does not pass the test after three tries, they will be held back from the fourth grade. The state estimated that 6,350 more students would repeat third grade starting in the 2025-26 school year, according to the bill's fiscal note.

The bill does allow exemptions from retention including for some English language learners and students with disabilities. It also establishes reading assessments for students as young as kindergartners so parents and teachers know where they stand.

Opponents, including many Democratic lawmakers who are in the minority in both chambers, say holding students back will strain the resources of schools if third-grade classes are forced to grow. Others say holding students back can have harmful social and emotional effects.

A successful Democratic-authored amendment to the bill that passed Monday establishes an appeals process parents can take if they disagree with their child's retention.

Indiana’s largest teacher’s union, the Indiana State Teacher Association, has a neutral stance on the bill. Leaders have said they are in favor of the early intervention but wary of the retention piece.

The Indiana School Board Association testified in support of the bill while the Indiana Parent Teacher Association testified against it.

Improving the literacy skills of elementary school children has been a bipartisan priority for lawmakers, although Democrats want even earlier intervention in education.

A bill filed by state Sen. Fady Qaddoura, a Democrat, sought to lower the mandatory age to send children to school from seven to five and expand a preschool voucher program. The proposal did not receive a committee hearing in the Republican-controlled legislature by Thursday's deadline.