Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

State Senator: Third Grade Reading Exam Represents State Overreach

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, during a meeting of Indiana's Senate Education Committee in January.

The chairman of the Indiana Senate’s Appropriations Committee says state education officials are out of bounds in using a bill he sponsored in 2010 as the legal basis for a controversial statewide reading test, the IREAD-3.

State Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, says the General Assembly wanted to make “a strong statement that reading was important,” yet sought to avoid creating a single test to judge whether a student could be held back.

But that’s exactly the fear of many parents, teachers, and district officials: if the Indiana third graders who failed the IREAD-3 in March don’t pass a retake this summer, the state will require these students to take third grade again.

“I would just put the Department of Education and the State Board [of Education] on notice that they’re clearly not in line with the words in the statute so they’re opening themselves up perhaps to a lawsuit or a complaint by somebody on those grounds,” Kenley told StateImpact.

“It gives [schools] a tool they never had to go to a parent and say, ‘Look, we’ve always known this kid can’t read. Now we’ve got something that can prove it.’”
—Stephanie Sample, IDOE spokesperson

Kenley’s comments highlight, at minimum, the confusion surrounding the IREAD-3. Other state lawmakers and district-level educators have echoed Kenley’s comments, saying it’s inappropriate for a single test administered by the state to determine whether students get held back.

State education officials, however, maintain they are not requiring students who fail the IREAD-3 to take third grade again. They want district-level officials to have the power to make that call, Indiana Department of Education spokesperson Stephanie Sample says.

But the state will require third graders who do not pass the IREAD-3 after two attempts to take third grade-level statewide tests next year. In other words, Sample says, the school has the power to decide whether to promote the student to a fourth grade classroom, but the student will still have to take both the ISTEP and the IREAD as a third grader.

How HEA 1367 Turned Into IREAD-3

In 2010, tucked into some other school finance language in House Enrolled Act 1367, the Indiana General Assembly unanimously passed a measure calling on state education officials to craft robust reading standards for Indiana students.

Kenley helped shepherd HEA 1367 through conference committee to passage, along with Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary; Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis; and Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis. (Porter told School Matters blogger Steve Hinnefeld, by the way, he too felt the IREAD-3 represented state overreach.)

The language they settled on calls for holding students back “as a last resort.”

The executive branch always gets to decide how legislative actions get put into practice, however. In this case, the law empowered the State Board of Education — an executive panel, chaired by state superintendent Tony Bennett, whose members are gubernatorially-appointed — to decide how to implement the law. Here’s the key portion of the rule they adopted:

Beginning with the 2012-2013 school year, retention of a student in grade 3 if the student does not achieve a passing score on the IREAD-3 assessment during the previous school year or during a subsequent attempt at passing IREAD-3.

In this case, Kenley says state education officials have overstepped. He told StateImpact:

At the time we developed the statutory language, we had a detailed discussion of this point [retention]. And the legislators agreed that this language was the most appropriate language, it was a strong encouragement to make sure everybody can read, but not an absolute statement that if you can’t pass one specific test, you can’t be promoted on, because we know there would be individual cases where this situation would have to be modified…

I think [the State Board of Education's] sense is that it’s so important to have the reading skills that they think maybe an absolute standard is permissible. But that is not what the legislature decided to do in the language that we put there. So we may not have a difference of opinion in terms of how important [reading skills are], but I think in terms of executing this, through the processes, I think we have a little different understanding of how much you can do.

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.

There are exceptions to the rule for English language learners and students with, as the rule terms it, “disabilities.” In those instances, the student’s academic record would be reviewed in a case conference that wouldn’t necessarily conclude with the student’s retention.

State officials say there’s enough leeway for districts to determine how best to implement the rule in their schools. That said, state officials say they realistically expect schools to ask most students who don’t meet exceptions to repeat the third grade — that’s likely the most practical solution for districts.

“It gives them a tool that they never had to go to a parent and say, ‘Look, we’ve always known this kid can’t read. Now we’ve got something that can prove it. We think the best recommendation is for this kid to stay in the third grade classroom, because that’s where we can provide him the instruction he really needs,’” Sample says.

The state will release the first round of IREAD-3 results later this month.

StateImpact will have more on the IREAD-3 throughout the week. We’ll hear from more parents, state officials and educators about what happens next. What do you make of Kenley’s remarks? Or the state’s response? Share your thoughts in our comments section.


  • Douglas Storm

    Well, it’s now easy to see the way the messes are made, yes? Anyway, who is Stephanie Sample? Does the district need a “tool,” or should I say bludgeon, of denigration to go and shove in a parent’s face about their child? And does this not speak instead against the school’s ability to instruct (isn’t this really what the state wants)? Rather now the parent has a test that says the school is failing, NOT the other way around.

    What a bunch of sociopathic, political “improvers.”

    • Douglas Storm

      further: “state officials say they realistically expect schools to ask most students who don’t meet exceptions to repeat the third grade — that’s likely the most practical solution for districts.”-ie, they didn’t need to make a “law” they made policy compliance onerous and thus gave it the force of law by “practicality.” Shrewd and underhanded as usual.

    • Jwright123

      Agree. This Stephanie Sample should know what Indiana schools have. We already have Wireless Generation/ mClass testing that we do one on one with our students throughout the year that tests reading skills and reading level of the student. Not sure why another test, which costs millions for the state, is needed when we already use the mClass system to test them. Oh, don’t forget the ISTEP test too! Oh, and the 8step program we use that also tests every 3 weeks, yep, every 3 weeks. Please parents speak out. We are required to test, test, test these students way too much. Let us use one tool to guide instruction and let us teach! All I know is we have several business making a fortune off all these tests we ate forced to give and fund….which takes away from other classroom resource funds. :(

  • Marblemania

    What the hell does ROBUST reading standards mean? Seems like a euphenism for “extremely unrealistic and cruel standards to 8 year olds who are growing and learning at different rates”.And the educators in the room took this as a signal to retain children…who are these state educators and what do theyknow about the retention research…awww who am I kidding? These tests have nothing to do with good education. Me thinks your state was following Floriduhs lead where it is mandatory retention in 3rd grade for failing the RIGOROUS standards of FCAT. Look up rigorous. Just for the heck of it.

  • Matthew Brooks

    Not long ago the Indy Star quoted a principal as saying “retention is the law”. Was she lying or misinformed? I would expect school leaders to be well informed on an issue that could affect so many children.

  • Karyn

    Heaven forbid a child be a poor reader at the end of third grade, yet doing fine in math or other academic areas. Back to third grade for you no matter what!

    If anyone had bothered to ask schools why students who struggle typically have NOT been retained, they would have discovered that it’s because hundreds of research studies overwhelmingly show that retention has no effect or a NEGATIVE effect on students.

  • Reginaweir123

    As a mom, I can’t help but to think about the sad situation this puts the mom who is trying to encourage her child’s reading development and has to contend with the results of this test and the mandates associated. I really hope people against this test will sign the following petition and let your legislators know you are outraged by what is going on.

  • Jenny Robinson

    Matthew, as far as I can tell, the IDOE has been actively misinforming schools. A number of schools seem to have posted online text that comes straight from the DOE and that represents the legislature’s passage of PL 109/HEA 1367 as requiring both the IREAD assessment and retention of students who fail.

    I’m also not willing to let the legislature off lightly on this one, even if their text does not mandate either retention or IREAD. They knew what the IDOE wanted (they had voted down an earlier version that wrote retention into the law, according to a School Matters post), and they must have known that PL 109 would open the door for the IDOE to implement it. If literacy is a priority, why not allocate more resources for literacy programs, teachers, and libraries? The assumption seems to be that lack of motivation on schools’ part is the cause of low skills. Would our legislature issue a decree saying that all thirty-year-olds should have a healthy body mass index nine months from now, pour money into weighing them repeatedly, and then fine those doctors whose patients fell beneath the cut-off line?

  • MJ

    For those students that did not pass IREAD, IDOE’s forced assessment of reading skill through the assessment test of IREAD could be construed as an ‘evaluation’ under IDEA and give parents more rights because the IDOE in essense determined their child as having dyslexia (performing under grade level) and qualified them as a student with disabilites. Parents with students with disabilites have a right to participate in the determination of how their children will be evaluated and what is most appropriate for their child’s education. If parents do not agree with the assessment, there are procedural safeguard processes parent have a right to in making their case. Even the testing profession’s own Joint Standards state children’s learning should not be done with only using one test….

  • Jdp0220

    Very interesting, Ms. Samples comments. I’ve got the regulations pulled up right now from the Indiana Register (Title 511 Indiana State Board of Education) written by the DOE. Section three clearly states that a student who fails to meet the cut score on the IREAD-3 and who does not meet one of the three good-cause exceptions will be retained. I really hate it when these scoundrels get caught and they try to talk themselves out of it with some ridiculous statement like Ms. Samples comment. Or by saying they’re not requiring retention but the kids still have to re-take 3rd grade tests. Sad, sad, little people…

    • StateImpact Indiana

      But look at the second exception listed in the State Board’s rule, which allows for a case conference for any student with a “disability.” I don’t know what that word means or if that is the source of the latitude state officials talk about, but I’d imagine they could make that exception much more restrictive if they used the word “IEP” or “special ed” to limit the types of students it applies to.

      Ms. Sample would tell you that I grilled her fairly hard on this point. But this position from the state isn’t by any means new: (Check the date on the story — February 2011, right when the State Board passed the rule.)

  • Silent observer

    Maybe if we let teachers teach and government officials find better things to do with their time and money, then public education could once again be free for all

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