Editorial: Legislature needs to lead to solve state’s literacy crisis

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The statistics are startling: Nearly one in five Hoosier students is still struggling to read by the end of third grade.

Indiana policymakers thought they had found a solution to the problem more than a decade ago when the State Board of Education created a rule requiring children who failed the IREAD-3 third-grade literacy test to be held back.

Exceptions were created for students who have disabilities, are English-language learners or receive special tutoring. But over the years, the exceptions seemed to widen as the number of students promoted on to third grade without the required reading skills increased dramatically.

Chalkbeat Indiana recently reported that about 96% of students who did not pass the IREAD-3 moved to fourth grade over the past decade.

In 2023, 13,840 third graders—or 18% of all third graders in the state—did not pass the test. Of those, 13,428 moved on to fourth grade, and only 412 stayed in third grade another year.

In addition, student performance on the IREAD-3 test has deteriorated significantly over the past 10 years. In 2012, 91.4% of third graders passed the test. Last year, that number stood at 81.9%.

Leaders in the Republican-dominated Indiana General Assembly appropriately have pronounced that attacking the third-grade literacy problem will be a priority when the Legislature convenes on Jan. 8.

Leaders of both the House and Senate have said the focus will be on tightening rules that keep students in the third grade if they fail the literacy exam, even though some educators question the effectiveness of retention.

But House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, also told the Indiana Capital Chronicle that the state’s larger goal should be to ensure that students have the skills to learn to read by the time they have reached third grade.

The reality is that the literacy problem in Indiana elementary schools has reached a crisis, and the state needs to throw everything at it that it can.

The Legislature took an important first step last year, mandating curriculum and teacher training in the Science of Reading. The approach is based on scientifically based research that requires the systematic use of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

We’ll have to wait and see how effective that new approach will be, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers should sit on their hands in the meantime or just toughen third-grade retention requirements.

This crisis requires an all-hands-on-deck approach that tries as many potential solutions as possible to see which one will move the needle.

The Lilly Endowment is doing its part. This week, it announced plans to provide $21.5 million in grants to help 28 Indiana colleges and universities instruct teachers in Science-of-Reading methods.

Ultimately, it will take the cooperation of business and government leaders, educators and philanthropists of all political stripes to solve the problem.

There is no time to waste. Literacy in the third grade must be improved so that all students have a chance to succeed in school and life and become productive members of society.•

__________

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