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Tuesday, May 28
The Indiana Daily Student

city education

Third-grade retention is now required in Indiana. Have similar policies helped or hurt other states?


In Indiana, one in five students haven’t mastered reading by the end of third grade. It’s just one of many states across the nation that are facing the issue of elementary illiteracy, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Indiana passed Senate Bill 1 on March 11. The bill includes screenings for early reading deficits and funding for literacy coaching, but it’s best known for strengthening third grade retention requirements. Now, third graders who don’t pass the IREAD assessment or meet a good cause exception, made for cases such as students with intellectual disabilities or learning English as a second language, will be held back. 

Indiana isn’t the first state to pass literacy legislation. California and Florida pioneered third grade retention in the late 1990s, and since then, states from Mississippi to Michigan have passed various laws to support elementary readers.  

These policies, especially around retention, are often controversial. Study results are complicated: Retention can be effective, but only when it’s paired with other forms of support, such as screenings and coaching. It can also lead to inequity and negative mental health impacts. 

S.B. 1 is about outcomes, Sen. Jeff Raatz (R-Richmond), one of the bill’s authors, said. Raatz also authored Senate Bill 6, which aims to help students who’ve left third grade without passing reading assessments catch up. For students to be successful in life, he said, they need to know how to read. 

As Indiana looks towards its first school year with S.B.1’s policies in place, it’s worth looking at how similar laws have played out in schools across the country. 

Arizona has gone through a variety of different reading support plans. The state passed a “Move on When Reading” policy in 2010 that retains third graders who scored low on reading proficiency exams. The policy was implemented in 2013, and since then, has been updated to mandate dyslexia screenings in kindergarten and first grade and to add teacher training on dyslexia.  

Like Indiana law, it contains some exemptions, including students in special education programs or who are learning English as a second language. Both bills are also known for their retention policies, but also include support for and ways to identify struggling students.  

By 2021, Arizona fourth grade students improved their reading level on standardized tests by half a grade and the literacy test pass rate to 46% from 40% when the policy was implemented. Terri Clark, Arizona literacy director of early literacy initiative Read on Arizona, said the reason the policy works is because it’s a comprehensive set of strategies. Students are getting reading support earlier because of improvements like literacy coaching and increased educator preparation. 

“Retention is just one tool in that toolbox of policies,” Clark said. “It's not the end. We really tried to approach it as that: retention is one tool, and almost the last tool, to help ensure students, struggling readers especially, don't fall through the cracks.” 

Retaining third graders is a “gray area” in some ways, Clark said. There’s a clear short-term boost in reading skills, but it’s not clear if that effect continues — another reason she believes having multiple strategies is important. It can’t just be “retention for retention’s sake,” she said. 

Karen Carney, an Ohio elementary school teacher, looks at the issue differently. Ohio’s 2012 Third Grade Reading Guarantee aimed to end “social promotion,” when third grade students are allowed to continue into fourth grade despite not passing literacy assessments. It went into effect in 2013, and it remained that way until 2023, when it was weakened in favor of parental choice.  

Carney worried about retention’s effect on students’ mental health. Seeing the students realize the gravity of the test, that it’s all or nothing, was disturbing, she said.  

“You should never judge a child, or anyone, on one moment in time, because there's so much more that plays into that big picture,” Carney said. 

One year, her school district tried to do partial retention: “three and a half-ers,” Carney recalled. The students took all their normal fourth grade classes but went to third grade reading instruction. It yielded the worst results of all, she said. 

“Everyone knew that they had failed the reading test,” Carney said. “Because there they were, with the scarlet letter on their chest.”

Raatz raised an opposing concern about mental health. If students move on without learning to read, he said, they’ll get behind. If they’re called on to read in class, they won’t be able to. That kind of persistent embarrassment can lead to behavioral issues down the road, he said. 

Instead of retention, Carney believes the solution should instead involve early intervention. Schools should target students for reading help in kindergarten, because by the time they get to third grade they’re already behind.  

It’s important to recognize that students come in at different levels, Carney said. She supports expanding access to preschool to help bridge that gap.  

Indiana’s S.B. 1 fills in some of these gaps. It includes support for second grade students, as well as funding for tutoring and summer school, which may help avoid the “scarlet letter” situation Carney described. 

Additionally, the Monroe County Community School Corporation is using referendum funding from 2023 to provide affordable pre-K to community students.  

There’s been pushback to retention in Indiana. The state passed changes to reading curriculum only last year, and many local parents and administrators are opposed to the bill’s provisions.  

Clark, though, said she believes pushback will disappear once schools start seeing results. She hopes people will understand that retention is only one piece of the puzzle, and they’ll start to support the policy in the end. 

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