Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Will Holding Back Indiana Third Graders Improve Their Future Reading Scores?

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

A student listens in as teacher Amy Swafford reads aloud to her third grade class at Bloomington's Clear Creek Elementary School.

The clock is ticking — and the pressure is mounting — for every Indiana third grader.

In less than three weeks, 8- and 9-year-olds will all take a standardized test of their reading abilities. Those who do not pass the exam, the IREAD-3, also don’t pass third grade.

Gov. Mitch Daniels has said the policy ends “the cruel, defeatist practice of passing children who cannot read into fourth grade.” But while many believe third grade is as appropriate time a time as any for a drastic intervention, some are still wondering whether holding them back is the right way to help them.

Emily Richmond writes in The Atlantic:

While [holding students back] might seem like a short-term solution, it could do long-term harm to a child’s social and educational development…

Florida implemented a third-grade retention initiative in 2002, and saw its fourth-grade reading scores soar. But reading scores for the state’s eighth grader have flatlined.

Our colleagues at StateImpact Florida confirm this, by the way, writing “fourth grade reading scores in Florida went from ranking second from the bottom nationally in 1999 to among the top ten today. But eight grade reading scores are still low.”

Richmond’s Atlantic article continues:

When asked where he stood on his state’s initiative to hold back third graders, educational psychologist David Berliner — the Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University — was blunt in his assessment.

“It seems like legislators are absolutely ignorant of the research, and the research is amazingly consistent that holding kids back is detrimental,” Berliner said. “Everybody supports the idea that if a student isn’t reading well in third grade that it’s a signal that the child needs help. If you hold them back, you’re going to spend roughly another $10,000 per child for an extra year of schooling. If you spread out that $10,000 over the fourth and fifth grades for extra tutoring, in the long run you’re going to get a better outcome.”

But at Jay P. Greene’s blog, Matthew Laudner disagrees with Berliner’s assessment.

Laudner acknowledges some states have had failed attempts at holding back students, known as “retention.” But these states didn’t have the right research to help them craft good policies, like in Florida.

“The question is not whether retention is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — that all depends on how it is used,” Laudner blogs. “The evidence on the overall literacy effort in Florida — which includes retention as a centerpiece — is overwhelmingly positive.”

Indiana Department of Education officials point out students who don’t pass the IREAD-3 can move on to fourth grade, but must take third grade tests. From the Associated Press:

Indiana Department of Education spokeswoman Stephanie Sample acknowledged that although the law only requires that the student be retained in third-grade reading, moving that student forward in other subjects will prove difficult.

“What the law specifically says is that kids who don’t pass have to take the ISTEP again and can’t move on to fourth-grade reading instruction,” she said. “Functionally, that means for most classrooms the student will be (held back). But it is still a local determination.”

State education officials say research indicates that students from kindergarten to grade three are primarily “learning to read,” but in fourth grade, they “read to learn.” They say that students who do not read proficiently by fourth grade will struggle to keep up.

Sample said the state is not expecting to see a large number of students held back due to the reading test.

As we’ve reported, Indiana educators are trying to use data on students’ reading performance to help them prepare for the exams. They’re using different diagnostic tools — some call them “temperature checks” — to identify which students need extra coaching ahead of the exams.

GOOD‘s education blog points out, unlike in Florida, Indiana schools are not getting increased state funds to help pay for new teaching tools or teacher training to boost reading scores.

What do you think of Indiana’s third-grade reading exam? Tell us in the comments section.


  • Alarmed Nut

    A 2002-2003 study of 99,000 Florida fourth-graders found that students who were retained in third grade performed better than similar students who had been socially promoted the year before. The study by Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters casts doubt on the current fashion of socially promoting students year after year. Rather than retain students for a second year at an appropriate level of instruction, we promote them to a more difficult level where they have little chance of performing well on appropriate state testing. The claim by the education establishment has always been that students at risk will be provided with individual instruction to fill in what they have missed. State test results tell a different story, with some high schools reporting as many as 30% of their entering freshmen still reading at fourth-grade level or below.
    If schools are not making Adequate Yearly Progress, it may well be the fault of social promotion, not unreasonable testing standards. No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the bipartisan education act co-authored by Ted Kennedy, John Boehner, and others, evaluates performance according to the grade in which the school has chosen to place the students, not according to how old they are. Students reading at the third-grade level will be shown as proficient if they are placed in third grade, in need of remediation if they have been promoted to fourth grade, and below basic if they have been promoted even further. Schools which wish to show adequate yearly progress should stop promoting students who are not proficient and instead hire additional third-grade teachers as Florida has done.
    Florida Department of Education Director of K-12 Test Administration Susie Lee said 29 percent of Florida’s third-graders were held back when the program began in 2001. By 2011, only 16 percent were held back.
    Likewise, Lee said, 57 percent of third-graders were reading at grade level in 2001 while 72 percent were doing so last year.
    She said students who are struggling are given extra help until they can reach the appropriate grade level and some students can move on to fourth grade even if they don’t meet requirements under a “good case exception” in certain circumstances.
    “We generally see a bump (in grade-level reading) each year,” Lee said. “I think the program is meeting its goals.”

  • Jenny Robinson

    To me it seems that our legislators are not particularly attuned to children. The idea that a forty-question test administered in one 72 minute session would be able to give an accurate picture of a child’s reading ability would be laughable if our own DOE were not championing it. Here are some problems with the test:
    * The intention is to identify, and retain in third grade, children who have not mastered reading skills.
    * Given that retention has been shown to increase the rate of dropping out, and to have, in the long-run, a negative or null effect on academic achievement, it puts children in harm’s way. And we should all be interested in the long run, not next year’s achievement tests.
    * It is likely to disproportionately affect low-income and minority children and families.
    * Even if we accepted that the goal of retention was desirable (which I don’t), the instrument for measurement (I-READ 3) is faulty.
    * It has been inadequately piloted.
    * It assumes that 72 minutes (?) of data gathering is more valid than teachers’ year-long data gathering and assessment.
    * It would only be valid if individual children’s test-taking skills were equivalent to each other.
    * It will have a “cut score,” and so ignores the reality of a margin of error. It cannot adequately distinguish between children close to that score.
    * It cannot take into account environmental factors that may affect a child’s performance, such as poor sleep, nervousness, illness, or family stress.
    * Since children with disabilities may receive an exemption, it will likely result in more parents seeking that designation for their children. Not only does this have psychological ramifications for families, it will further burden the special education system and divert resources from those who have a more serious need for them.

  • Thehirschys5

    I am a mother of a child who struggles with reading but consistently works hard and continues to progress . I am certain that the pressure and high stakes of the IREAD 3 will cause my child to not score as highly on the test as they are capable. Furthermore, students who pass all of the classroom requirements throughout the year, yet are required to “repeat” the 3rd grade due to a failing score on the IREAD 3, will CRASH and completely give up on school and learning. I am the mother of one of these children. I think our legislation needs to consider that not all children score well on standardized testing and perhaps this form of assessment is not the best option.
    I graduated at the top of my highschool graduating class (Saluatorian) yet my SAT and ISTEP scores consistently reflected an average or below average score. I also maintained a 4.0 GPA during much of my college career. I am living proof of an individual who is perfectly capable of achieving excellence academically but perhaps buckling under the pressure of standardized testing. Again, are standardized tests a true representation of a student’s capabilities academically? Please reconsider the lasting ramifications of holding a student back that otherwise passes all the school work throughout the school year!!!!!

  • Carol

    My grandson did not pass the IREAD exam. It is very hard to understand. He finished both second and third grade with B+ in reading. His other subjects were A’s and B’s. Now is is repeating third grade. He enjoyed school and was looking forward to fourth grade. Now he is depressed and not able to understand this decision. He was passed to fourth dependent on the the summer test. He missed by a few points. He is a tall child and already looks older than his age. He has always been a reader and will discuss what he reads. I feel that this will cause more problems than it solves. I feel that these educators are making a mistake that will affect him and other children for a very long time. Someone definitely needs to rethink this. The IREAD should be a tool only. Not the final word

  • Yeoman

    Student who fails iRead + threat of being held back + parents embarrassed by the situation = transfer to a charter or private voucher school + saving the state of Indiana money

  • JeniG.

    Our daughter is an A/B Honor Roll student and has struggled with reading from the start. We just got the results from the IRead test stating she has failed.This is what boggles our mind. How is it possible that a an Honor Roll student be made to take summer school before retaking the test and if the child fails again they are made to do 3rd grade reading which in turn could cause them to be retained???? 3 YEARS OF SCHOOLING! 3 YEARS ON THE A/B HONOR ROLL! 1 FAILED TEST TRUMPS THOSE? 2 FAILED TESTS CAUSES SO MUCH MORE WORK AND PRESSURE THAT IT’S EASIER TO RETAIN AN OTHERWISE successful student?!?! I CALL BS!!! Every child is different. THIS IS HORRIBLY DETRIMENTAL TO MY CHILD AND IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN! GET IT TOGETHER INDIANA! THIS IS PATHETIC “LAW” AND HAS NOT BEEN SUCCESSFUL ENOUGH IN FLORIDA TO WARRANT SUCH EXTREME MEASURES.

    • Carol

      So sorry to hear. My grandson had same thing happen last year. See post below from Carol, 9 months ago. He is repeating 3rd. grade. He is not only an A,B student he was also getting B+ in reading. My daughter fought as hard as she could, but he had to repeat. It was very difficult for him at start of school year, but he eventually adjusted. I am from Illinois and we do not have that law. Something really needs to be done to repeal this law. To me it feels like they took away a year from my grandson. It is unbelievable that with the grades he had he was made to repeat. Hoping that Indiana citizens can eventually do something about this.

      • Carol

        May I add that even though my grandson adjusted to repeating 3rd. grade, it has left emotional scar. On occasion, so called adults, have said to him, “shouldn’t you be in 4th. grade?”, at this, he just hangs his head with no response. He will never understand the reasoning for staying back, nor will I, since he did so well in his daily schoolwork, starting with preschool. So citizens of Indiana, fight this law.

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