State Education Secretary supports stricter third-grade retention law

The portion of the chart that appears to be missing is when testing did not happen as a result of the pandemic. Graphic provided.
By Casey Smith
Indiana Capital Chronicle

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s top education official on Tuesday said she wants Hoosier lawmakers to toughen the state’s third grade retention policies — while keeping some exemptions in place — as part of an “urgent” push to improve dismal literacy rates.

Secretary of Education Katie Jenner maintained that too many Indiana third-graders who lack foundational reading skills are advancing to the fourth grade.

Currently, thousands of Indiana third-graders who fail the statewide IREAD-3 exam can be held back, although there are numerous “good cause” exemptions, including for English learners and students with disabilities.

 Secretary of Education
Katie Jenner (Courtesy 

Still, it’s possible for a child who fails to pass IREAD-3 to “socially” move on to fourth grade, as long as they continue to receive third grade reading instruction during the subsequent school year.

Jenner said additional literacy supports are needed across the board but expressed specific concerns about the students who are moving up a grade without an exemption.

“We will absolutely consider, who are the students that may still need a good cause exemption? That will absolutely be a part of the conversation,” Jenner said following the State Board of Education’s monthly meeting Tuesday morning. “But what will also be a part of the conversation is, what about the other 8,000 students that don’t have a good cause exemption? From the longitudinal implications that we see thus far, it’s not benefiting them moving forward.”

“I think that’s the real answer that, as a state, we have to solution-find — fast,” she continued. “We’re going to have to address that this legislative session — noting that there will be some exceptions for kids — but we also have way too many moving forward right now.”

According to new data from the Indiana Department of Education, in 2023, 13,840 third-graders did not pass I-READ-3. Of those, 5,503 received an exemption and 8,337 did not. Of those without an exemption, 95% moved onto 3rd grade while only 412 were retained.

Republican legislative leaders said last month that the current state law isn’t being implemented effectively. Reforming Indiana’s third grade retention law now appears to be high-priority for both the House and Senate in the 2024 session. Although no bill drafts have been released yet, a mandatory statewide retention policy could be on the table.

But the proposal has so far been met with skepticism from Hoosier teachers, school officials and education experts who maintain that a more stringent statewide retention law could further inflate classroom sizes and have negative social and emotional effects for students. Critics additionally caution that holding back more kids will cost the state hundreds of millions dollars more in education expenses.

Jenner held that — although education officials are still gathering and analyzing retention data — “it has to be a ‘both and’ approach.” There’s not one “magic solution,” she said, but retention is a necessary part of the state’s “triage” response to widespread literacy deficiencies.

“This is a tough topic, but we know from our data what happens when students can’t read by the end of third grade and they move on. We have to figure out as a state how to fix that,” Jenner added. “We are having conversations and we’re going to work together to find the best solutions. I am for some sort of legislation, and I will work with educators, parents and families, and our policymakers to land that in the best way to support kids.”

State releases more data

The latest testing data shows that only 81.9% of Hoosier third-graders passed the 2023 IREAD-3 exam, meaning one in five of students that age struggle to read. Jenner said those scores amount to “a crisis, a major problem” for Indiana.

Her goal is for 95% of Indiana’s third-graders to achieve passing scores on the IREAD-3 exam by 2027.

While third grade enrollment has declined since 2012, the number of students who do not pass IREAD-3 has more than doubled, according to data presented Tuesday by Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) officials.

Of the approximately 14,000 students who did not pass IREAD-3 in 2023, over 5,500 received a good cause exemption.

Across the board, students who do not achieve proficiency on IREAD-3 experience ongoing struggles with text complexity, engagement with research components, and writing skills, IDOE officials said during a third grade literacy presentation on Tuesday.

Data indicates that students who get exemptions demonstrate lower proficiency on subsequent standardized assessments. Additionally, students who pass IREAD-3 are 35% more likely to graduate than those who don’t.

Once a student gets an exemption, they don’t have to take the IREAD-3 test again. Education officials said that makes it harder to track a student’s long-term progress.

Jenner defended schools, saying local officials are “following what’s allowable in the state – they’re not breaking the current rules.”

But she said new policies are needed to help schools be more “proactive” and intervene earlier with supplemental literacy resources for struggling K-3 students. Jenner also called for policymakers to consider what can be done to aid students in upper grades who still struggle to read.

Why aren’t Hoosier kids at school?

The education secretary and other state officials further pointed to correlations with student attendance data released earlier this year, which indicated that about 40% of Hoosier students missed 10 or more school days last year, and nearly one in five were “chronically absent” for at least 18 days.

Rates of chronic absenteeism are particularly high for K-2 students, ranging from 21% in kindergarten to about 15% in grades 1 and 2, according to state data.

“If children are missing over three-and-a-half weeks of school … then educators can do everything they can, but if the child’s not at school, it’s hard to get them to that place of reading, proficient in math, etc.,” Jenner said. “That’s where we’re really going to need the partnership with parents and families to make sure kids are at school … we’ve got to turn this Titanic around … we really need a solution found urgently because we need these students at school every day.”

Jenner said she doesn’t have any firm policy recommendations yet but is confident that cracking down on chronic absenteeism will be paramount to upcoming policy discussions around literacy.

“There are a number of ideas floating around right now, but I would say more to come,” she said “We’re still gathering data and potential tactics on that, but we’re actively meeting with educators and legislators on that topic.”

Possible solutions

It’s still not clear where new legislation targeting third grade literacy will land. Lawmakers reconvene at the Statehouse on Jan. 8 for the 2024 session. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb — who has said he’ll tackle the issue in his legislative agenda — is also expected to release his policy recommendations that day.

In the meantime, IDOE officials said they’re working on a new data visualization tool that shows granular literacy data — like IREAD-3 performance — that can be filtered by school corporations. The “heat map” tool is expected to go public in January.

The state is also pushing for more schools to administer IREAD-3 to second-graders to help parents and teachers determine if reading interventions are needed for younger students before they take the exam.

Officials also said they want to see Indiana’s colleges and universities better align educator preparation curriculum with science of reading instruction. Jenner said “most” higher education institutions across the state have been responsive, but she threatened probation for programs that aren’t properly training new teachers.

“We have no time to waste,” she said. “We are going to hold our bar high to make sure our educator prep programs are doing what we need to prepare our teachers.”

A combination of state dollars and private grants continue to be available to schools, teachers and parents, as well.

Part of the new statewide shift to mandatory science of reading instruction, for example, is being paid for from a $111 million fund aided by the Lilly Endowment. Another $60 million approved by the state legislature earlier this year funded ongoing science of reading and early literacy grants to schools and teachers.

Given that the 2024 non-budget session likely won’t see lawmakers reopen state coffers, Jenner acknowledged that any new legislative solutions will have to be “policy-only.” That could be complicated, though, given that some research suggests the state will have to spend millions of additional dollars to hold back more students.

“What policies do we need to get in place? And then how do we look at preparing for the future, 2025 budget session? That’s on my mind,” she said. “Some of these solutions may cost money. I don’t know how much discussion we’ll hear this session, since it’s not budget, but I think people are absolutely contemplating what (responses to third grade literacy) looks like.”