How Indianapolis area educators are preparing for a proposal to retain more third graders

A group of young students sitting at their desks raise their hands in a classroom.
Students participate in a third grade reading comprehension class Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, at Central Elementary School in Beech Grove. A bill advancing at the Indiana Statehouse aims to make sure more students can read by holding back students who don't pass the IREAD. (Jenna Watson / Mirror Indy)

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.

This story was co-published with Mirror Indy and WFYI.

Grace Martin, a tutor at Vision Academy charter school in Indianapolis, teaches the alphabet.

‘A’ makes the sound for ‘apple.’ ‘I’ is for words like ‘important’ and ‘ice.’

It’s a lesson she uses with students in kindergarten — but to her surprise, she has to teach it to third graders as well.

“It’s like they … just paused at kindergarten or first grade, and now they’re in third grade,” Martin said. “I’m helping them pick up on basically two years of learning.”

It’s a challenge that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic but grew much worse after schools switched to remote learning for part of 2020. Third grade reading scores remain near the lowest point in a decade, and that means thousands of kids lack essential skills necessary to learn as they grow older, such as phonics and comprehension.

Now Marion County educators are preparing for the likely rollout of Senate Bill 1, which would require districts to hold back more students who fail the state’s elementary school reading exam. That bill emerged as one solution proposed by the Gov. Eric Holcomb administration and state lawmakers after seeing that nearly one in five Indiana students failed the reading test in each of the last three years.

Schools currently have the option to retain students yet few do. In 2023, of the 13,855 third graders who didn’t pass the state’s spring reading exam, according to state data, only about 400 were held back.

Reporters from Chalkbeat Indiana, Mirror Indy, and WFYI contacted educators across Marion County to learn how school administrators and teachers were preparing for the probable changes coming just a year after the state required schools to adopt new reading curriculum.

Some support the legislation and see benefits in giving students another year to learn how to read. Others, though, worry about what would happen next: a wave of overcrowded classrooms beginning with a “bubble” in the third grade.

“Then we’re going to see that bubble go into our middle schools and into our high schools,” Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts said.

Thousands could retake third grade

If enacted, the legislation could have an outsized impact in Marion County.

That’s because lawmakers are looking at how many third graders are passing the state standardized exam known as the Indiana Reading Evaluation and Determination, or IREAD-3. That test, given to all third graders, assesses whether the students are proficient in reading.

In Marion County’s public school districts, about 2,700 students were allowed to advance into fourth grade even though they failed IREAD, according to state data. That amounted to 28% of the districts’ third graders. Statewide, that promotion rate was about 17%.

To be clear, not all of those students would necessarily be held back under Senate Bill 1.

Under the legislation, kids would be given three opportunities by the end of third grade to pass IREAD. Students who don’t pass would become eligible for literacy-focused summer school and repeat a year of classroom instruction. But some students — including English language learners with less than two years of learning English, students with disabilities, and those who pass the math portion of state exams — would still move on to fourth grade.

It’s difficult to know how many students would be affected by the legislation. An online portal from the state Department of Education does not outline how many Marion County students would be exempt, and the state did not answer questions about how that number could be estimated.

Statewide, though, as many as 7,050 students would be held back in 2026, according to the Legislative Services Agency, which advises lawmakers on policymaking. That could cost the state an additional $57 million as the students age.

Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner, however, says with multiple opportunities for students to take IREAD, retaining the estimated 7,050 students statewide is “a worst-case scenario.”

“This number, we should never hit,” Jenner said. “It would be unacceptable if we do.”

Marion County schools less likely to hold back

State education officials set a goal in 2022 to ensure 95% of Hoosier students pass IREAD by 2027.

Some officials say meeting that goal will require a shift in how schools decide to hold back students.

At two Marion County public school corporations — Indianapolis Public Schools and Lawrence Township — roughly one in three students were sent to fourth grade without passing IREAD. Both districts declined to comment for this story.

At Pike Township, where 29% of third graders advanced to fourth grade without passing IREAD, Superintendent Larry Young noted the likely effect this legislation would have on urban schools during a January school board meeting. He said he’d like lawmakers to also consider students’ potential for growth.

“I would ask that they look at trajectory,” Young said. “We have children that … in the next year or two, not only will they catch up, they will potentially surpass where their age-same peers may potentially be.”

Butts, the Wayne Township superintendent, said there are valid concerns about holding back students. Studies have found that students who were retained dropped out of school and faced negative social-emotional outcomes. Overall, however, research is mixed on whether retention is ultimately beneficial.

“But we also understand the negative impact of children not being able to read at grade level,” he said. “And that gets exponentially more challenging for them as they get into more difficult content.”

That’s what Rachelle Fisher, a fourth grade teacher in Franklin Township, is seeing. An educator for nearly two decades, Fisher said she loves to teach reading, but by fourth grade, it’s about content.

“It is nearly impossible to teach Indiana history and Indiana state science standards to students that are not reading at grade level,” she said.

Educators say retention isn’t the only answer

Some educators support the legislation but question whether it is happening too quickly.

Indiana lawmakers passed legislation last year requiring schools to adopt curricula aligned with the science of reading, an approach to teaching reading that focuses on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. While some districts have already trained staff and introduced this teaching, others are doing so for the first time this school year.

Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, introduced a new reading curriculum this year and while 96% of kindergarten through second grade classrooms were using it as of December, only about half of teachers so far have mastered teaching the new material.

“We are three months into implementation of something that a year from now will be very well organized and articulated,” Brookside Elementary School 54 Principal Jeremy Baugh told IPS Board Commissioners during a Feb. 20 meeting.

Other educators stressed that a one-size-fits-all approach to retention may not be best for students.

Stephanie Cotter, principal at Beech Grove’s Central Elementary, said her colleagues consider more than test scores when making a decision about retention. A school committee evaluates what interventions have been tried in the past, how many questions were missed on reading exams and whether retention is socially appropriate for a student. They also consider a student’s size and birthday, and bring parents into the conversation.

A bird's eye view of a young student's hand circling words on a piece of paper.
A third-grader works through an exercise Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, during a reading intervention class at Central Elementary School in Beech Grove. (Jenna Watson / Mirror Indy)

“What’s being proposed is even more constraining compared to what’s out there,” Cotter said. “We all want our students to be able to read. We want to hit that 95% target. We want them to have those early literacy skills, and we have to look at specific children and decide, ‘Is this what’s best for them at this time?’”

Cotter and others say retention alone only goes so far. Schools continue to grapple with attendance challenges as students settle into classroom learning after 2020′s pandemic-driven disruptions. About one in five Hoosier students were considered chronically absent last year, and additional legislation has been introduced this year in response.

Some educators say they hope the state will invest in greater literacy support for students before they reach third grade. That could mean universal preschool or mandatory kindergarten.

Barbara Wellnitz, a tutor with United Way’s ReadUP program, said she supports efforts to start students in school earlier.

“Fully funding pre-K for all children, paying teachers of those children decent wages, and requiring children to attend school by age five would all go a long way toward helping children up their reading skills,” Wellnitz said. “Fewer students would face the possibility of retention in all grades.”

What’s next

Parents of students who would have been held back have spoken out against the bill, saying they are concerned about the weight put on students taking a test.

Rachel Burke, president of the Indiana Parent Teacher Association, told lawmakers that she knew when her daughter was in first grade that she would struggle to pass the IREAD. But what she didn’t know until December of her third grade year was that her child had been having seizures at the rate of dozens per day, and likely missing instruction as a result.

Even after receiving medication, she didn’t have enough time between December and the March testing window to catch up, Burke said. She failed, and had to take summer school and repeat the test, but those results were lost.

Now that she’s at the top of her class, it’s clear that holding her back would not have been the right course, Burke said.

“She’s not unique. There are kids whose parents die who take the test the next day. There are kids whose houses burned down who have to take this test the next day,” Burke said. “Kids are people. They’re not statistics. There has to be some room.”

But at the Statehouse, the bill continues to advance. It passed out of the House on Tuesday and now returns to the Senate before heading to Holcomb’s desk.

That’s good news to Martin, the tutor, who said she agrees with the proposal. She said no parent wants to hear that their child needs to be held back, but it’s about making sure they have “that extra support that they need to set them up for success.”

“Where do you want your kids to be at? Do you want to pass your kid and then he’s gonna continue failing and then he’s gonna graduate and he actually didn’t retain anything?” Martin said. “No, you can’t do that. You got to put the kid first.”

Aleksandra Appleton, Amelia Pak-Harvey, and MJ Slaby from Chalkbeat Indiana contributed to this article. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Contact the bureau at in.tips@chalkbeat.org

Carley Lanich and Emily Hopkins from Mirror Indy contributed to this article. Mirror Indy is a nonprofit news organization covering Indianapolis.

Eric Weddle from WFYI contributed to this article.

The Latest

The ‘Youth Civic Hub,’ an online portal launched on Friday aims to increase youth civic engagement and electoral participation.

The board on Tuesday signaled to lawmakers that they want new laws to reform the state’s charter school system.

El distrito y la high school enfrentan una nueva audiencia con la Junta de Educación Estatal en mayo.

Un grupo influyente conservador ha elaborado una estrategia para desafiar una decisión histórica del Tribunal Supremo que protege el derecho de los niños indocumentados a asistir a la escuela pública.

With federal pandemic aid for schools expiring, the schools say the additional operating funding would be crucial for students and staff.

“I work in school nutrition to feed kids, not trash cans,” a dietitian testified at a legislative hearing last week.