Another viewpoint editorial: Retention isn’t ideal, but it’s a tool to attack reading problem


Indianapolis Business Journal

The Legislature passed a bill that would require K-12 school districts to hold back more students who fail the state’s elementary school reading exam.

The move is controversial, and we understand that. But as we said in an editorial in December, the state must take action to ensure the next generation of students can read.

State data shows nearly 1 in 5 third-graders don’t pass the state’s reading exam. In 2023, that meant 13,840 third-graders didn’t meet the state’s reading standards. And Chalkbeat Indiana has reported 96% of those students moved on to fourth grade anyway.

It’s hard to imagine how the current system helps anyone. Those students continue to fall further behind as schoolwork requires that they can read. Teachers in upper grades must try to accommodate those students in ways that distract the teachers from moving other students forward in their learning. And eventually, unprepared students graduate (or worse yet, drop out of school) and enter the workforce.

Under the legislation, schools will be required to first administer the reading test to students in the second grade. That’s a year earlier than required now. Students that fail must be offered extra help. If a student fails three times by the end of third grade, the school must hold the student back.

There are some limited exceptions (including for English-language learners and special education students), but the goal is the majority of kids who can’t read repeat third grade.

Some Democrats and educators oppose the bill. Many worry about stigmatizing kids who have to repeat third grade. Other critics say lawmakers should wait to see whether a change in reading curriculum approved last year will work.

And many fear the change will create a glut of students in third grade that schools aren’t prepared to deal with. The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimates as many as 7,050 students could be held back in 2026, when the law is fully implemented. That could cost the state an additional $57 million as those students work through the system and cause space problems and third-grade teacher shortages.

That would be worse in some districts. In Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, about 1 in 4 students is sent to fourth grade without passing the iRead exam, according to Chalkbeat Indiana.

We empathize with all of those concerns. But we think the problem is too great not to try to attack it in multiple ways. Retention is one approach. The curriculum changes are another. And lawmakers need to consider more ideas.

Among them: Requiring students to attend school by age 5 and fully funding pre-kindergarten programs. Republicans have been reluctant to embrace either idea. But we think it’s time to reconsider both. This problem is too important not to consider all the options.

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