Here’s what’s in Indiana lawmakers’ proposal to hold back more third graders

A large tan stone building with a green dome roof and flags at the top with a blue sky in the background.
The Indiana Capitol building in Indianapolis. Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation designed to bolster state policy about retaining third graders who don't pass a key reading test. (Elaine Cromie / Chalkbeat)

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Starting next school year, thousands of Indiana third graders could be held back if they don’t demonstrate key reading skills under a new bill from GOP lawmakers.

Senate Bill 1 — authored by Sen. Linda Rogers, Sen. Jeff Raatz, and Sen. Brian Buchanan, along with 28 Republican co-authors — seeks to bolster the state’s retention policy and is the centerpiece of GOP lawmakers’ education agenda this year. It’s the newest phase of an ongoing effort to improve the state’s early literacy rates. Last year, lawmakers passed a sweeping new law requiring reading instruction to be based on methods rooted in the science of reading that have gained traction nationwide.

Around 80% of Indiana third graders passed the statewide reading test, known as the IREAD-3, in 2023 — a number that has remained stubbornly flat since the pandemic. The Indiana Department of Education wants 95% of third graders to pass the reading test by 2027.

While third grade retention has been part of Indiana policy for over a decade, schools have increasingly avoided actually holding students back, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education, especially since the pandemic. Guidance from the department in 2021 encouraged schools to consider a student’s “overall academic performance” in determining whether retention is necessary.

In 2023, of the 13,840 third graders who did not pass the IREAD, just 412 stayed in third grade for another year, while the rest moved on to fourth grade.

The state has offered “good cause exemptions” for students with disabilities or those who are English language learners that let students who don’t pass the IREAD. But recent state data showed that most students who moved on to fourth grade did not have an exemption, and were instead “socially promoted” to the next grade.

Of those third graders who moved on to fourth grade in 2023, around 5,500 received such exemptions, and nearly 8,000 did not.

The GOP bill would remove language from statute that students “might require retention as a last resort.” Instead, it would require that students repeat third grade if they don’t demonstrate proficiency on the IREAD or meet one of a few exceptions.

It would also require schools to identify and remediate students who are at risk of not passing the test by offering summer school, as well as science of reading-based instruction through eighth grade. Schools would also need to monitor students who fail the IREAD beyond third grade and retest them until they reach proficiency or move into seventh grade.

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Students with disabilities and those who are English language learners would still be exempt under the bill, which would add a new exemption for those who demonstrate proficiency in math. Those who have already been retained once would not be retained again.

Around 72% of students who did not pass the IREAD in 2023 came from low-income families. Approximately 43% are white, 25% are Hispanic, and 24% are Black, according to department of education data.

In an email Friday, Secretary of Education Katie Jenner indicated the education department supported the measures outlined in Senate Bill 1, including “creating a strong definition of retention for the first time to ensure significantly fewer third grade students who cannot read are promoted to fourth grade.”

But the retention proposal has encountered skepticism from teachers, education advocates, and Democratic lawmakers, who say the state should focus on non-punitive measures and individualized support for students.

In a panel Thursday hosted by the Indiana State Teachers Association, literacy researchers said improving early education, including preschool and kindergarten, play a significant role in improving literacy. Also key, they said, is ensuring that schools have sufficient resources, teachers, and time for quality reading instruction.

You can track this bill on the General Assembly’s website.

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at aappleton@chalkbeat.org.

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