Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

What's Next For Third Graders Who Didn't Pass Indiana's Reading Test

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Ethan Brown, a third grader in Franklin Community Schools, did not pass the IREAD-3 exam. His mom, Jamie Abbett (right), says it isn't fair for her child to have to worry about one test. State officials say struggling readers need an intervention.

Ethan Brown needed a score of 446 to pass Indiana’s new third grade reading test. But last month, he found out he’d scored a 443.

“I started crying and telling myself I was stupid because I didn’t pass that test,” Ethan, 9, remembers.

84 percent of Indiana third graders passed the IREAD-3 exam last March. More than 11,700 Indiana third graders who did not, however, must retake the test in June or July. 

Ethan, a third grader at Webb Elementary School in Franklin, has trouble focusing sometimes and takes medicine for ADHD.

“It’s not fair to a nine-year-old to have to feel that way about not passing — or even just to have to worry about failing.”
—Jamie Abbett, Franklin parent

But because he’s not an English language learner or a special education student, Ethan must pass his retake this summer. If he doesn’t, state policy requires he take all statewide tests as a third grader next year.

In other words, in all likelihood, he won’t advance to fourth grade if he doesn’t pass the IREAD-3 this summer.

“I want to move on. I don’t want to be stuck in third grade. I don’t want to be held back. I want to go on to the next grade,” Ethan says.

But what happens to Ethan next year is still, to a degree, an open question. The state points to areas of the new policy that give local districts options in deciding what to do with students like Ethan, should he not pass again.

Teachers and district officials, though, say they still feel as though the new policy limits their ability to decide what’s best for the students who fail the IREAD-3.

Hands Tied Or Hands Freed?

Indiana’s new policy is rooted in the idea that schools must identify the students who need the most help with their reading skills. Once identified, teachers can then step in to provide specialized or one-on-one reading instruction or, “as a last resort,” hold the student back.

State superintendent Tony Bennett says third graders who cannot read need help, or they’re likely to lag behind their peers for the rest of their academic careers.

“We have to stop lying to children,” Bennett told reporters at a press conference in his statehouse office on May 15. “This involves having hard conversations with children and their parents.”

The policy does allow schools to handle retention in different ways. Students who do not pass the IREAD-3 could theoretically be educated in a blended Grade 3-4 classroom, or attend subjects other than reading in a fourth grade classroom.

But even state officials say these scenarios are unlikely. The best way for a student to prepare for a third grade statewide test, many educators say, is to spend a year in a third grade classroom.

Franklin Community Schools curriculum Deb Brown-Nally says the state’s tough line on reading has limited the authority of educators in her district to make decisions. She tells StateImpact her district has had processes in place to handle a struggling student since before the state implemented the new policy:

I believe the philosophy behind all this is very valid and very good. We don’t want to send kids on who aren’t ready, but my experiences at Franklin Community Schools is that we haven’t done that. We’ve tried to provide intervention programs at the outset. We’ve had the hard conversations. We have retained kids. But I like to believe the professionals are making the decision along with the parents — who know the child better than anybody — they’re making that decision together, rather than a one-day, one-hour test.

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Ethan Brown, 9, plays a video game in his Franklin home. His teachers are beginning a remediation program to prepare him to retake the IREAD-3 in late June.

Retention As Intervention

Opponents of the state’s reading policy say retention is not the best intervention for a struggling student.

Bloomington teacher Lee Heffernan, a literacy coach at a high-poverty elementary school, says that intervention can actually break the spirits of a struggling student. As she told StateImpact earlier this month:

A big part of a teachers job is reinforcing that reading and writing is part of their identity; to reassure them, ‘You are a reader, you are a writer, you can do this, you know the strategies to tackle this puzzle that we’re giving you’…

It is a big identity issue. If you’re not going on to fourth grade with your peers, that’s very disorienting and troubling for a kid. It’s really high pressure to stay with your peer group and be part of the community, it’s kinda harmful to a kid’s identity to say, ‘Well, you weren’t really a reader or a writer,’ you aren’t gonna be a fourth grader.

“If our children can master literacy, and our children can read, we can get them to where they need to be in science, social studies, and other areas of their life.”
—Tony Bennett, state superintendent

Derek Redelman, the vice president for education policy at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, says he agrees with the idea that simply repeating the third grade is not an effective way to help a struggling reader.

But Redelman says retention can work in the right context. As he told StateImpact last week, the IREAD-3 is part of a much more cohesive state policy that makes reading a priority in the early grades:

I think what DOE is putting together is a whole package. They have been promoting particular curriculum approaches that have evidence backing up their success. They have urged this 90-minute reading block as one of the issues, but not the only one. They have created several diagnostic testing opptys so that teachers and schools can monitor the progress that their students are making. I think it’s a whole set of approaches.

And I do think the retention issue really is an absolute last restort. I don’t think anywhere in DOE’s plan have they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to test at the end of the third grade then by golly we’re gonna hold you back.’ They’re doing a whole bunch of stuff leading up to that and I think anyone who portrays this purely as a retention program either is not informed or is trying to distract from what’s really going on.

Franklin Schools curriculum director Deb Brown-Nally says the state has offered guidance to districts. But she says third grade is probably too late to retain a student.

What’s Next For Ethan

Ethan’s mom, Jamie Abbett, says she knows extra reading help this summer will be good for her son. But she feels like the state’s policy has left her without much say over Ethan’s education.

“It breaks my heart that my child think’s he’s stupid because of one test,” Abbett says, adding, “It’s not fair to a nine-year-old to have to feel that way about not passing — or even just to have to worry about failing.”

Most teachers say Ethan came so close on the IREAD-3 last time that he’ll surely be able to pass his retake. Ethan hopes they’re right.

“I hope that I will pass this test, because I really want to go on to the next grade and enjoy my summer,” Ethan says.

He’ll enjoy it as much as he can — he was going to spend a summer with his grandma in Florida. Now, he’ll have to wait until he retakes the test.


  • Jamieabbett

    Hello, this is Ethan Browns mother. Just to throw this out there, my child is limited to his game playing, just on weekends. So happens my story was done on a Friday, so Ethan could play. He does not sit an play video games all the time! During the week, especially since Ethan has failed this test our nights are consumed with homework. So his weekends are his fun times.

    • StateImpact Indiana

      Thanks for adding that Jamie. I can confirm what you’re saying — it wasn’t my intention to create that impression! I should add that Jamie told me Ethan has to read 20 minutes every day, Jamie told me she feels as though she pushes her son outside of school to attend to his studies — so much to the point that added remediation over the summer would cut into Ethan’s time to “just be a kid.” All of these valid details, but ones that had to be sacrifice in the interest of limited space on the radio!


      • Jamieabbett

        Thank you so much for adding that Kyle! I really appreciate it! I just don’t want people to see his picture and be like, well no wonder be failed; his nose is stuck in an Xbox. Which is not the case. Thanks again!

      • Concerned_Mom

        Hello, I am a young mom. A teacher suggested my son be put on ADHD medication, but I did not take heed to her warning. My son has failed this test, and I fear it is more my fault than his own. By any chance, could you please shed some light on the aftermath? Did Ethan pass remediation or repeat the grade with stronger comprehension?

  • Marcus Quintillian

    Question 1
    Here are some sample questions which students had to miss in order to fail. I certainly wouldn’t want my son entering fourth grade if he couldn’t answer them. We aren’t talking about a student who is a competent reader, but had a bad testing day. We are talking about a student who, for whatever reason or reasons, really cannot read and needs to stay back for his own good.

    Judge for yourself:

    Look at the words for Number 1. Find the word that has the same beginning sounds as “grass…grass”. Fill in the circle that goes with the answer you choose.
    • gray • guest • glove

    Question 2
    Look at the words for Number 2. Find the word that has the same ending sound as “rain…rain”. Fill in the circle that goes with the answer you choose.
    •sting •done •tiny

    Question 3
    Choose the word that has the same vowel sound as the underlined part of the word (shown below in bold).
    … sand
    •pain •chart •crash •waste

    Question 4
    Choose the word that means the same, or about the same, as the underlined word.
    .. was sad
    •angry •careful •excited •unhappy

    • Maruegger

      No, students did not have to miss these questions, or others like them, in order to fail. There are three parts to the test, and the questions above are only from the first part. The other two parts are reading comprehension sections, one on fiction and the other on nonfiction. I am not certain, but I believe that I have heard that the last section was weighted more heavily. In fact, students could have answered all of the decoding questions correctly, and a majority of the other two sections correctly, and still might have just missed passing. The real issue, though, is whether one test on one day should count for more than an entire year of assessment by an experienced teacher.

      • StateImpact Indiana

        This is a great discussion. Let’s keep it going.

        Marcus, it might be relevant for you to know that Ethan’s teacher didn’t see this coming, according to what his mom told me. Given the amount of diagnostic testing (I’ll get to this in a sec) that goes on in Indiana schools these days, they have some basis to say this. Take Ethan’s report card: He’s gotten B’s and C’s in reading and English all year. From Jamie and Ethan’s perspective, it’s difficult to square the possibility of being held back with these grades and the feedback they say they got.

        Maruegger, it might be relevant for you to know that those diagnostic tests also match up really closely to the IREAD-3 results. By the diagnostic tests, Ethan is a few points behind reading on third grade level. Not by much, but really, really close. Ethan did not pass the IREAD-3 in March by a few points. He didn’t miss by much, but again, really really close.

        I think my reporting suggests the crucial question: Is Ethan the exact student this policy was designed to help — dare I say, *save? Or is the policy itself handcuffing teachers to intervene in a way that doesn’t demoralize the student?

        Is that the right question to ask? What are your thoughts on that? Thoughts? I’m really curious to where people come down on this.

    • Frustrated

      My son scored 100% on the vocabulary section and still failed the test!

  • Jamieabbett

    For Marcus, my sons major downfall is comprehension, he scored very high in the first two sections. It was the last section he had problems with, which was literary text. Which also I came to find out he was hurried through.

    • Concerned_Mom

      I am a young mom. A teacher suggested my son be put on ADHD medication, but I did not take heed to her warning. My son has failed this test, I fear it is more my fault than his own. By any chance, could you please shed some light on the aftermath? Did Ethan pass remediation or repeat the grade with stronger comprehension?

  • Aboeverett

    Something needs to be re-evaluated if nearly 12,000 children in Indiana failed this test. The very creators of this testing system state that the test is not intended for children in this age group In Fact they say that the younger the child, the less accurate the test score. That says a mouthful. If our educators could not notice nearly 12,000 children slipping below goverment standards, there in lies a problem. The biggest problem of course is goverment setting standards in education and various other things that they are not experts in. They don’t have teaching degrees, but there they are, none the less, calling the shots. Perhaps someone can tell me why Ethan’s score would have been a passing score if he were in a different school system???? It is my understanding that the passing score changes from one area to another. I guess Children in some areas don’t need to read as well. Interesting………….

  • grademangler

    What’s next if a student doesn’t pass the test the second time and is not retained? That’s the question to be asked. The answer will surprise you. Students who are not retained will be going onto the fourth grade, but they will return to the third grade for the 90 minute language arts period. They will take the third grade ISTEP test and will be promoted onto 5th grade the next year—never having any fourth grade reading instruction and they will not take fourth grade ISTEP tests. Nothing has been mentioned as to whether they will retake the IREAD test again. That’s the plan !?!?!! I doubt those students will fare well in the fifth grade having skipped a whole year of fourth grade reading instruction. Most students are moving forward with this plan in place and my hope is they will pass the second time around in June. Again, the state puts their “cart before the horse” with little forethought as to the consequences of their actions and we all go bumbling along with them. When do we say ENOUGH !

  • Sick of IREAD

    I understand the state wanting to give the best education to everyone. It should be that way. Aren’t people different? Do we all do things the sameway? Everyone knows were all differnt. If their really concerned. Then WHY are all kids judged on 1 test! Were not robots or a computer that’s mass produced. This state and country has major issues with
    education. They try to teach everyone the same way. I know a little girl that has a GPA in 3rd grade of 94%. She will be lucky to pass I step due to reading slow. She is very bright. She has dyslexa. One of may problems present in people. But once again the law makers have no clue of all the different problems. Each type of problem has to be over come by different teaching methods. Yet lawmakers hold all childrens results based on one reading test. They should work on getting programs in schools to check for the problems. Then create learning programs to over come the problem. Not try to mass produce children into what they want them to be.

  • Frustrated parent

    I feel the IREAD Test is the worse thing ever implemented in the school system. Some kids just do not take test well, and their academic success is based on some stupid test results. I never had to take a test in third grade to determine if I could read and I have a college degree. My son has experienced so much assessment and testing, prior to actual IREAD test he already has anxiety and is afraid of failure. So much emphasis is being placed on passing IREAD and ISTEP test that kids are pushed to learn so many different things; they never get the time to absorb the basics before being rushed on to something else. We have been studying for this test all year. What happens to those student who do not have the support at home?

  • Nod

    My child goes to private school which hold there students to higher level. When these kids merge with children from city schools the private school children consistantly score higher in high school. My daughters lowest score in 3rd grade has been 92% on All testing. Now she failed the i read do to being a slow reader and feeling pressured. I hope the people who created this law have to suffer as much pain as they have created for these children and for as long as these children have to deal with it.

  • Erika

    My son passed the IREAD test without missing one question. He also has ADHD and is on medication for it. We push him to read as much as possible and always have. He will often pick up a book before he even thinks about watching TV or playing a video game. The IREAD where we are at has a max score of 650 and the need I think at least a 450 to pass. I agree with making these kids who don’t pass retake the test or holding them back. If they aren’t at the reading level that they need to be at passing them onto the next grade will only hold them back later on in school. I also have a son that has a hard time with reading so I can see this from both sides. I would want him to be held back or have to retake this test if he wasn’t on the same page as his peers.

    • A honest parent

      You are insensitive and quite frankly, STUPID!! This dumb ass assessment is a joke…How the hell ONE test determine and whole academic school year? Are you serious…And with regards to your ADHD son who passed without missing one question..yea right!! How do you know? It’s not like you see the actual test/results in each area…the test result numbers is based on a matrix not your regular grading scale…liar!!!

    • sarah

      So what about my child who is straight A student identified by other state tests as reading at forth grade level but was sick three days before I read with a 103.3 temperature. I was called by the school and said she had to come on the make up day, the day after, to take the test. She went to school sick and tired. She failed by 12 points. She’s a complete book worm. She had to sit inserting of a computer while recovering from sickness and failed. Now has to do summer school with kids who unfortunately can’t read and perform at level. She will be bored out of her mind. And gain nothing from summer school other than think she is a failure because she got sick.

    • Michelle Anderson

      It’s unfortunate you feel that way. My son has A&Bs and a very high Lexile. He has never been diagnosed with ADHD and is a young 3rd grader. He struggled with test anxiety over the last two months dealing with the NWEA, iSTEP and IREAD tests all falling back to back and felt a ton of pressure to do well. He had a great score on his NWEA test, but we found out today that he did not pass the IREAD test. He is devastated. Now there will be even more pressure on him to take a one week crash course and last chance test knowing its do or “die”. I completely disagree that one test score should be what determines if they could move on. If that’s the case, why are we only doing it to 3rd graders? Let’s make it the norm and do it every year!?

    • Rose

      Why should a child repeat the entire year when they fail one reading comphensive part of the test. My son his on the honor role in a private school and missed r
      The pass score by 20 puts. And has all a’s this is wrong

  • 3rd grade mom

    So if my son has a B average and doesn’t pass the ISTEP/IREAD tests he can be held back? Some kids don’t test well…why are we trying to teach every child the same way when each one of us are totally different and learn differently. It’s my feeling that these tests create unneccesary stress in the children and if they don’t pass a sense of I’m stupid which isn’t the case. I have a son in 3rd grade who will be heading down the testing path come March and he is so nervous it’s unbelievable.
    As a grown adult I have a hard time understanding the questions that are on the assessments he takes on a weekly basis and I am a educated person. The picture below I believe says a lot!

  • TDungan

    One test to determine a child’s future?! Really?! That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard! What if they don’t test well? What if they are just having a bad day? It’s not right!!

  • Marlene

    My grand-daughter can read, but she cannot tell you what she read, she doesn’t have any reading comprehension skills. She has been in intervention classes since kindergarten. she struggles only with her reading. Her great-grandparents just spent $5,000 at the local Brain Balance Center. She gets 20 minutes of extra help each day in school. So now that she didn’t pass this test, will she be in the third grade forever!!!

  • mommaagainstiread

    GOD gave each and every one of us a talent…a purpose!! Maybe reading, language, and perfect test taking isn’t everyone’s specialty!!!
    One of my children made all A’s and had 1 B and didn’t pass the I read. He passed it the 2nd time around but now my daughter is up on the chopping block. She missed it by 5 points!!!!! This is really irritating when the state puts stipulations on education but then doesn’t supply the school with the money needed to provided extra help to the kids who learn at a just below average. Not every child likes reading and now with the way our state is shoving it down children’s throats they will never enjoy it. She had all A’s and B’s on her card too!
    If my daughter doesn’t pass it will completely break her!!!!! She is a lovely soul with lots of friends! A popular girl and she will be way to mature physically to be put in a class with incoming 3rd graders!
    Our kids shouldn’t be your stinking science experiment and they kids taking the tests now should of had the proper reading series started and given to them in 1st grade!!!!
    I see a lot of families home schooling in the future….guess the state will be losing more money before long!

  • sarah

    My daughter didn’t pass I Read… she is a straight A student. Passes all of her class reading tests no problem. She passed all other standardized tests like Dibels and TRC way above grade level, and NWEA. Middle of 3rd grade she was labeled as reading at forth grade level. Right before I READ she was out sick from school. She missed Friday, Monday and Tuesday with a fever of 103.3. They said the make up day was Wednesday. She had to come take it out she’d do summer school. She went to school sick and took the test. Sniffling, coughing and tired through the test she failed by 12 points. my straight A student now has to do summer school! She’s never fail any test before this, classroom test or standardized.

  • pissed off mon

    I totally agree with this mom..
    my son also feel as if he is not smart and he broke down crying because he did not pass the I read test.. He is upset that he has to go to summer school and afraid he won’t be able to enjoy his summer vacation… My son had been on the honor role since kindergarten, yet because he did not pass this test he may be retained. I will fight for him…
    I’m not a happy mom with the Indiana school system****!!!!

    • Heather Vanlaningham Harney

      My son and I both broke down crying when his teacher gave us the news that he did not pass…. He has ADHD and dyslexia and does not have the stamina to sit through the entire test, but is at reading level and has an IQ higher than the average 3rd grader. He completely bombed the third section. I have already had conversations with the officials at his school about what happens to him if he doesn’t pass the second time. If they will allow him to move to fourth grade with or without passing I would prefer he takes the test with the Good Cause Exemption kids, who for some reason do NOT have to take the summer course, on June 4th. I can’t get a straight answer… Can you give me any insight?

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