Indiana lawmakers advance bill to hold back more third graders who don’t pass reading test

A young girl and boy sit together reading a book called “Spot’s Big Learning Book.”
Indiana lawmakers voted Jan. 17 to advance legislation to hold back more third graders who don't demonstrate proficiency on a state reading test. (Allison Shelley for EDUimages)

Sign up for Chalkbeat Indiana’s free daily newsletter to keep up with Indianapolis Public Schools, Marion County’s township districts, and statewide education news.

A bill to hold back and provide more support to third graders who can’t read proficiently passed the Senate Education and Career Development Committee Wednesday along party lines.

Senate Bill 1 would reinforce the state’s policy of holding back students who fail the state’s reading test, while also requiring schools to identify and give remediation to those who are at risk of not passing the exam.

Under the provisions of the bill, schools would also need to track students’ reading skills beyond third grade, and provide reading instruction rooted in the principles of the science of reading through eighth grade.

The legislation continues the state’s recent focus on improving students’ literacy and reading instruction. Last year, Indiana lawmakers enacted a law requiring schools to adopt research-backed curriculum based in the science of reading. The state also prohibited schools from using a reading instruction method known as three-cueing.

Sen. Linda Rogers, a Republican from Granger who authored the bill along with 30 other GOP lawmakers, denied that her proposal amounted to a “retention bill.” She said that retention would continue to be a last resort after other intervention methods — like early identification and summer school for young students who lack key reading skills — have been exhausted.

Still, Rogers called retention a “necessary policy” for students who can’t read by third grade, and who don’t have a qualifying exemption like a disability.

“While some may say that retention is not good for a child, what really isn’t good is to move that student on without foundational reading skills,” Rogers said.

Details of the legislation surfaced last week. In 2023, out of 13,840 students who did not pass the third grade reading exam (known as the IREAD), just 412 stayed in third grade for another year.

The bill has support from GOP policymakers as well as several statewide education advocacy groups like RISE Indy and the Indiana School Boards Association. Advocates said the measures are necessary to address Indiana’s stagnating literacy rates. Around 1 in 5 students did not pass the IREAD in 2023 — a number that has remained about the same for three years.

Become a Chalkbeat sponsor

But teachers, parents, and other education experts expressed skepticism about increased retention, saying that it would negatively affect students’ social-emotional well-being and long-term outcomes.

“Painting with broad strokes is dangerous,” said Rachel Burke, president of the Indiana Parent Teacher Association, who told lawmakers Wednesday that mandatory retention would have harmed her daughter. “She just needed more time, and it didn’t need to be in third grade.”

How retention and remediation would work

If the bill passes, beginning in the 2024-25 school year, students would have three attempts to pass the test — in second grade, third grade, and the summer after third grade. Those who don’t pass would be eligible for summer school focused on literacy, and their parents would be notified of their skill level, as well as any interventions needed.

Students who don’t pass the IREAD in third grade, or don’t have an exemption, would repeat a year. Qualified exemptions under the bill include having a disability or an individualized education program that specifies that retention is not appropriate; being an English learner who has received less than two years of language services; and passing the statewide math test — though these students would receive extra support in reading in fourth grade.

A repeated year must look different than a student’s first year of third grade, said Kymyona Burk, former state literacy director at the Mississippi Department of Education who spoke at the hearing. (Mississippi has attracted attention for its dramatic gains on national tests, including reading assessments.) Students should be placed with teachers who have a proven record of teaching reading, and need intensive literacy interventions throughout the year.

Burk noted that data from Mississippi showed that among students who were on the borderline of passing the statewide test, students who were retained performed higher in the long-term than those who moved on to fourth grade instead.

“We can prevent reading difficulty in children. We have to make sure that we are identifying them early and providing them with support much earlier than third grade,” Burk said.

A long-term decline in literacy

In testimony supporting the bill, Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner said literacy has declined in Indiana for over a decade. But retention rates have also declined, as the state softened its policy on holding students back and allowed for “social promotion.”

“This was not just a COVID challenge. It would almost be easier if it was purely due to COVID,” Jenner said.

Asked why students are struggling to learn to read, Jenner pointed to absenteeism as one possible cause. Of the 20% of students who did not pass the IREAD in 2023, nearly one-quarter were considered chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 or more days of school. Among students who passed, chronic absenteeism was around 9%, she said.

Become a Chalkbeat sponsor

“We can invest all the dollars we want but if you’re missing school, then your teachers can only do so much to get you there,” Jenner said.

Without a clear understanding of the reasons for the decline, some speakers said lawmakers should refrain from adopting any sweeping solutions.

“In order to prescribe a solution to the problem we need to understand what caused the problem in the first place,” said Joel Hand, speaking on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers Indiana and the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.

Concerns about student well-being

Public testimony in opposition to the bill focused on concerns that a broad mandate would supersede local control and parental input on when and how a student should be retained.

Other speakers expressed concern that a retention mandate would disproportionately affect students who are learning English, and thus exacerbate existing disparities.

Studies on retention frequently find positive academic outcomes among students who have been held back, but mixed or negative social and emotional effects, including more behavioral issues and higher dropout rates

State policy should focus on solutions proven to be most effective, said Vincent Edwards, who authored a Ball State University analysis on retention that found a slight positive effect for retained students. More effective solutions could include additional staffing or early learning programs.

“We need to focus on what we feel really confident about instead of what is at best marginally positive,” Edwards told lawmakers.

The committee rejected an amendment by Sen. Andrea Hunley, an Indianapolis Democrat, to delay the implementation of the bill until the 2025-26 school year.

Committee members discussed but did not yet vote on Senate Bill 6, a companion bill by GOP Sen. Jeff Raatz to identify older students who can’t read proficiently.

Become a Chalkbeat sponsor

Senate Bill 1 will now head to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

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.

The Latest

The Indianapolis charter school on the far eastside recently celebrated its new food lab and launched a culinary club, which hopes to take inspiration from a civil rights story.

One of the high points in the graduation rate data released Friday: the Lansing School District, where the rate has increased dramatically since 2021.

Three new national studies find that teachers are self-censoring at high rates, and that students and teachers are more comfortable talking about race in school than LGBTQ issues.

The “Dignity in Schools” called for the city to put millions toward restorative justice and mental health programs, while diverting money away from school policing.

Los defensores buscan preparar a los adolescentes para el próximo año.

Advocates say a bill to retain third graders could violate the civil rights of 93,000 English learners and conflicts with research on how long it takes to learn a language.