Literacy bill advances as worries rise over plan to retain more third graders

A retention mandate remains contentious in a reading reform bill passed out of committee Wednesday. (Getty Images)
By Casey Smith
Indiana Capital Chronicle

INDIANAPOLIS — House lawmakers are moving forward with a bill that seeks to remedy Indiana’s literacy “crisis” despite mounting pushback against a provision that could require thousands of students to repeat third grade.

Senate Bill 1, authored by Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger, would require schools to administer the statewide literacy test — IREAD — in second grade, a year earlier than current requirements, and would exempt successful takers from sitting the exam again. Students who don’t pass would receive targeted support to improve their reading over the summer and through third grade and would have three chances to pass the exam.

If third-graders still can’t meet the IREAD standard, legislators want their school districts to retain them.

The bill advanced from the House Education Committee along party lines on Wednesday and now heads to Ways and Means. Republicans supported the measure and Democrats opposed.

“Indiana is blessed with great educators, and I am confident they will rise to this challenge — along with parental involvement — to help us meet our statewide goal of 95% reading proficiency,” Rogers said. “We owe this to every Hoosier child.”

Exceptions are carved out in Rogers’ bill for students who have been retained in third grade before, special-education students, certain English language learners, and students who pass the math portion of the statewide assessment and receive remedial reading instruction.

How we got here

Last year, 13,840 third-graders did not pass IREAD, according to test data. Of those students, 5,503 received an exemption and 8,337 did not. But about 95% of students without an exemption moved onto 4th grade and just 412 were retained.

Multiple education experts emphasized that third grade is a critical year for literacy because it’s at that time students shift from learning to read toward reading to learn.

Rogers has repeatedly said, however, that her proposal is not a “retention bill,” and holding Hoosier kids back in school should “be a last resort.” She maintained, too, that if literacy supports and remediation in Senate Bill 1 are properly implemented, “we will not have to retain any children.”

Even so, tensions ran high at the Statehouse on Wednesday.

Numerous parents and educators who testified said that although they support efforts to identify and assist struggling readers earlier, they remained opposed to the legislation due to the mandatory retention provision.

“It’s possible to cherry pick a study here and there showing positive effects. But no review of the entire literature has concluded that retention has any positive long term benefits,” said Russ Skiba, professor emeritus at Indiana University, also representing the University Alliance for Racial Justice.

Skiba additionally said retention is “likely to cause serious, long-term effects for students,” including failure to complete high school, failure to advance to college, “and even increased crime.” Negative effects of retention “fall hardest” on Black and Latino students, he continued.

“The $57 million that could be saved by eliminating retention from this bill could be applied to the many positive and preventive strategies identified in the bill,” Skiba told lawmakers. “Do what works. Avoid what doesn’t. Take the resources wasted on ineffective and harmful strategies like retention and use it to implement positive and proven, effective literacy strategies. That would be a real science of reading that would truly benefit the students of Indiana.”

Ending social promotion

Education advocates, faith leaders and the state’s largest teachers’ union were at the Statehouse a day earlier to speak out against Senate Bill 1 and its implications on third graders.

“Retention, while it may seem like a straightforward solution, has been shown by research to be both academically ineffective and emotionally harmful. The prospect of retention can stigmatize and demoralize our young learners, risking a cycle offender achievement that we must,” said Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, who spoke at a news conference on Tuesday. “We must shift our focus from punitive measures to empowering our students with the skills they need to succeed.”

 Keith Gambill, president of the Indiana State Teachers’ Association, spoke at a news conference on Tuesday Feb. 13, 2024. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle) 

A dozen others who spoke alongside Gambill further held that holding kids back when they struggle to read is not the answer. They argued, rather, that retention decisions continue to be made by teachers, school administrators and parents.

“We do not agree with one-size-fits-all approaches that have potentially devastating, long-term effects on children,” said GlenEva Dunham, president of Indiana’s American Federation of Teachers chapter. “Retaining students has not been proven to be effective.”

Dunham, Gambill and others insisted that — instead of focusing on retention — more emphasis needs to be placed on identifying struggling readers before kindergarten, making sure schools have updated reading materials and technology, along with support staff like reading specialists.

Echoing requests from many Hoosier education officials and experts, Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, called for lawmakers to wait until 2026 to put in effect the stricter retention policy.

“We need to change this retention thing. We need to at least delay it until we see if these other reforms work,” DeLaney said before voting against the bill on Wednesday. He promised to offer an amendment to that effect on the House floor.

Paul Ketcham, representing the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said schools have “enough time” to put all components of Senate Bill 1 into effect by the 2024-2025 academic year.

“We are negligent if we do not address this problem now, because there is a cohort of students now,” he said. “Let’s roll our sleeves up. Let’s work together. Let’s do it now. I don’t think waiting makes it a better bill. I think addressing the issue now impacts students in our buildings now.”

Minor changes adopted

Several amendments were adopted to the bill in committee, including one that requires summer school courses for struggling second graders to be taught by teachers and tutors who are trained in the science of reading.

The amendment, authored by Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, also stipulates that a student who has received “intensive intervention” for two years and was retained more than once before third grade is not subject to the retention requirement.

Another change approved by the committee requires the state board of education to establish a method for ILEARN to be offered virtually.

Other proposed amendments offered by Democrats were unsuccessful, though.

One of those, authored by Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, would have lowered Indiana’s compulsory school age from seven to six years old.

Committee chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said he supported the motion but was concerned it would affect about 2,000 students and have “a significant fiscal impact” on the state budget.

“I think that this is an issue that would be better discussed next year, during a budget year, since it has a huge fiscal,” Behning said. Other GOP lawmakers agreed.

A separate failed amendment from DeLaney additionally sought to completely delete the retention language from the bill.

“I believe that the parent has got to have the right to say that their child should not be retained. Their child might be having adjustment issues, their child might be the oldest kid in the class and would then come out to be maybe two years older than some of their classmates,” he said. “I don’t like the fact that these tough decisions have to be made, but ultimately I don’t think the state is the one to make those decisions.”

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The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to giving Hoosiers a comprehensive look inside state government, policy and elections. The site combines daily coverage with in-depth scrutiny, political awareness and insightful commentary.

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