Senate passes reading skills bill despite bipartisan concerns

Keywords Education / K-12 / Legislature
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Sen. Linda Helms, R-Granger, is the author of the reading skills bill. (Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Legislation aimed at improving student literacy moved out of the Senate on Thursday after an hour of debate on provisions strengthening the state’s approach to retention.

Senate Bill 1, a priority bill for Senate Republicans, advanced from the chamber in a 36-13 vote featuring four GOP defectors.

“We owe this to every Hoosier child,” said Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger, who authored the legislation.

She said the bill would put Indiana “on a path so every child learns to read.”

The bill would require schools to administer the statewide literacy test—IREAD—in second grade, a year earlier than current requirements, and would exempt successful takers from sitting for the exam again. Students who don’t pass would receive targeted support to improve their reading over the summer and through third grade and would have three chances to pass the exam.

If third-graders still can’t meet the IREAD standard, legislators want their school districts to retain them.

Exceptions are carved out in Rogers’ bill for students who have been retained in third grade before, special-education students, certain English language learners, and students who pass the math portion of the statewide assessment and receive remedial reading instruction.

Last year, 13,840 third-graders did not pass IREAD, according to test data. Of those students, 5,503 received an exemption and 8,337 did not. But about 95% of students without an exemption moved onto 4th grade and just 412 were retained.

Third grade is a critical year for literacy because it’s at that time students shift from learning to read toward reading to learn.

“This is not a retention bill,” Rogers emphasized. “Retention is the absolute last resort (after) we have exhausted all other methods to help struggling readers.”

“To send these kids out to school without the ability to read sets them up to struggle throughout the rest of their education, and very often, for the rest of their life,” Rogers continued.

“After all, reading is the most fundamental thing schools need to teach our children.”

Opposition talks stigma, policy failures

Senators from both parties, however, worried the move to “mandatory” retention could harm students.

Sen. Eric Bassler, R-Washington, called the policy a “blunt instrument” and said the education system needed the finesse of a “scalpel.”

Bassler recalled learning to read at a relatively late fifth grade after his parents, teacher and administrators collaborated to put him in half-day special education classes that school year.

“Whether we like it or not, there’s a stigma to that, especially for a young child,” he said, adding that the impact of retention on a child “gives me pause.”

Sen. Andrea Hunley, D-Indianapolis, said the state should continue to offer schools discretion in making promotion and retention decisions.

“We cannot punish children for policy failures that have happened in this building. And that’s what it feels that this bill is doing,” she said. “We’re acknowledging that the state legislature has failed students and that harm has been done. But now we’re doubling down and punishing students by automatically forcing retention upon them.”

“The core issue … is whether or not you agree with allowing local experts and their families to make individualized, critical education decisions for themselves,” she said later.

Hunley additionally noted that some teachers continue to use now-outdated materials — lawmakers last session banned debunked reading instruction models — and cast doubt on the state having enough teachers to run summer schools.

Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, said he didn’t think lawmakers “let the ink dry” on last year’s “science of reading” move before diving into the current legislation.

“At some point, I’m going to step off because I don’t want to be a part of this failure to really make some advancement in our education,” Tomes said.

He and other lawmakers also cast doubt on studies drawing competing conclusions about retention’s effects.

Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, additionally argued that retention policies disproportionately affect non-white children.

Supporters talk benefits

Other lawmakers insisted retention can benefit students by giving them another chance to earn foundational reading skills.

“As much as I wouldn’t want any stigma attached to a child having to be retained … the alternative is letting them slip through without learning to actually read,” said Sen. John Crane, R-Avon.

He said unwarranted promotion sets students up for “a lifetime of ongoing situations of both social and personal embarrassment, if not worse.” Crane said, adding that he wanted the state to use “every tool” to help Hoosier students.

Sen. Mike Gaskill, R-Pendleton, purposefully repeated eighth grade in pursuit of his basketball-playing aspirations, and said the extra year helped him “grow up.”

He called himself a “mediocre student” that became a “much better” learner after a year at a private Christian school — his public school wouldn’t take him back after he initially regretted the decision.

And when Gaskill’s three children graduated eighth grade, he asked them if they wanted to repeat it. His sons said yes and his daughter declined.

Gaskill called the additional year “very beneficial” for his sons and said the “stigma was just not there” — although he noted the repeats occurred as his family switched school districts.

Senate Republican leadership remained firmly behind the bill.

“The bulk of that bill is about trying to identify kids who are struggling in reading early on — kindergarten, first, second, third grade — (and) getting them all the help and remediation they need so that we don’t have to retain anybody,” Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Rodric Bray told reporters.

He said the negative impacts of retention grow more pronounced as children age, which is why the bill focuses on third-grade reading standards.

The chamber approved the bill 36-13, with GOP Sens. Bassler, Vaneta Becker, Greg Walker and Tomes joining Democrats in opposition.

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