Thousands of Indiana students advance to 4th grade without reading skills, despite state policy

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This story was originally published by Chalkbeat Indiana.

Thousands of Indiana students advanced through elementary school without demonstrating critical reading skills, new data from the Indiana Department of Education shows, as state lawmakers consider requiring more students who struggle with reading to repeat third grade.

It’s the state’s policy to hold back third graders who don’t pass the state reading test—the IREAD-3—but data shows that retention rates have sharply decreased over the last decade, despite a simultaneous decline in reading scores.

About 96% of students who did not pass the IREAD3 moved to fourth grade over the last decade, according to a presentation at the State Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.

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 412 stayed in third grade for another year.

The state allows exemptions to its policy for students who have disabilities, or those who are English learners. Roughly 5,500 students received an exemption in 2023, allowing them to move on to fourth grade despite not passing the test. These students do not take the reading test again, so it’s unclear whether they attained third grade reading skills, education department officials noted.

But the remaining 7,925 students who moved on to fourth grade in 2023 did not have such exemptions; they moved on through a practice known as social promotion, which is allowed under state policy. A 2021 memo from the Department of Education outlines that schools should consider a student’s “overall academic performance” and not just their IREAD-3 score in determining whether they need to repeat a year.

This group of students must take the IREAD-3 in fourth and fifth grades, and receive additional support in literacy, but officials said it’s not clear from the available state data if these students ever reach reading proficiency.

Indiana Education Secretary Katie Jenner noted that some of these students are transient, making it harder to track their data.

Changes to third-grade retention policy likely

Jenner emphasized that schools are not at fault for the drop in retention rates since 2012, when the state policy went into place.

Of the roughly 6,000 students who did not pass the IREAD-3 in 2012, around 4,000 received exemptions, and nearly 2,000 were retained. Just 24 were “socially promoted” to fourth grade without exemptions.

“Schools are following what’s allowable in the state,” Jenner said. “Schools are not breaking the rules on this piece.”

Lawmakers have already indicated that they want to tighten the rules on retention in the next legislative session that begins in January. Reading has been an ongoing focus for the legislature, which this year passed sweeping laws requiring schools and teacher preparation programs to use reading methods based in the science of reading.

Republican state leaders also said they would plan to tackle absenteeism, which Department of Education officials linked to poor reading performance. Absenteeism rates are highest in early elementary grades and in high school, according to state data.

At a November press conference, the Indiana State Teachers Association declined to comment on a potential change to the state’s retention policy until a bill is filed. ISTA President Keith Gambill said class sizes along with the state’s relatively late age for mandatory school entry of 7 years old could affect literacy rates.

“We support efforts to make sure we’re doing all we can to have students reading at grade level,” Gambill said.

Effects of retention are mixed

Along with retention rates, reading scores have shown a steady decline since the 2012-13 school year, when proficiency rates peaked at 91.4%. After dropping from 87.3% to 81.2% from 2019 to 2021, scores have inched up by a fraction of a percentage point each year to 81.9% in 2022-23.

The progress is not enough to meet the state’s goal of 95% of having third graders reading at grade level by 2027, officials noted.

Not reading proficiently by third grade is linked to several concerns, many of which education department officials highlighted on Tuesday. Students who don’t pass the IREAD-3 are unlikely to pass state tests in older grades, Jenner said. They experience ongoing academic challenges and are less likely to graduate.

“When a child is sitting in your classroom and is unable to read, it is mortifying when they’re in ninth grade,” Jenner said. “They’re acting out because they’re embarrassed.”

Studies on retention have shown mixed results, with many finding that retained students go on to have higher test scores.

A recent study of Indiana data from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University found that third-grade retention boosted student performance in reading and math immediately, and that the effects persisted into middle school.

Furthermore, the study found that retention did not affect nonacademic factors like attendance and student discipline, which are a common concern when retention policies are discussed.

One of the study’s authors, NaYoung Hwang, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, told Chalkbeat that further studies are needed on the effects of retention on other nonacademic factors, like students’ self-esteem and friendships, and teachers’ expectations.

Hwang said early intervention was key in retention policies, as third grade represents a transition point in students’ learning.

“Up to fourth grade, most students have the opportunity to learn how to read. But then after that, it’s ‘read to learn,’” Hwang said. “Once you become a fourth grader, and you can’t read, it can have really negative consequences on all your learning.”

Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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10 thoughts on “Thousands of Indiana students advance to 4th grade without reading skills, despite state policy

  1. It seems some districts are more concerned about being able to say they have increased graduation rates than whether their graduates actually have any useable skills.

    Along with that we need to recognize that intelligence exists on a curve and that there will always be people on the left hand side that are simply not very smart and will never achieve reading or math proficiency. There’s a reason 30% of people who try to join the military fail their intelligence test, and all of them had to have a HS diploma or GED to even apply in the first place!

    Having a different track for students who are low ability would probably make sense but would be virtually impossible politically.

  2. This is an appalling statistic. And there is very little mention of the math proficiency. It is no wonder our position in the world is slipping. In the post-WWII era, if you didn’t go to school, you were a truant and your parents were at risk. However, for that to matter, the parents must care about their children’s education.

    1. YES! If we are passing students out of 3rd grade (and we are) who can read at their grade level or do math basics, shame on us! Grades K-3 are the the foundation for these children’s lives. This is where we need extra support to make sure their educational foundation is strong. Parents need to understand what their part of this success story is and be held accountable for attendance and working with the child at home.

  3. If lawmakers were truly concerned there would be substantial increases to the education budget to ensure that students are getting what they need to learn.

    1. Exactly, Christine W. Address the root causes of why children are unable to perform at the level they need to in the first place, including calling on parents and guardians to be more involved and accountable.

    2. I don’t believe the core issue is funding. I believe it is more due to the parents not caring if their children get an education.

    3. It’s not a funding issue. It’s a cultural issue.

      Our culture does not value education.

  4. They aren’t just going to 4th grade without being able to read, they are graduating high school! Education has become a numbers game and big business for administrators. They have no regard for these children achieving true basic education skills. The public education system is no different than an industrial cattle or pork farm- just fatten them up and push them through. The goal use to be to make the kid a good rule follower so they will be good employees, they don’t even worry about that any more- just move them along. And we wonder why our employers cannot find competent and responsible help these days.

    Add the fact that the state puts too much pressure on teachers to “pass the test”- so they teach the “test” and let the basic education skills slip by. Teachers aren’t the ones to blame either, they are doing what the government tells them to do – Parents need to step up! Quit blaming teachers for your kid being inadequate and misbehaving. The kids are completely out of control with behavioral issues. Mom and/or Dad or the aging grand parent who is raising their grandkid, will not make little Johnny or Susie behave- they think “they are just kids, they will outgrow it”- nonsense! My son graduated in a class of 400 students; his middle school VP told me out of all the kids he had to call a parent and report a behavior issue, I was the only one who made my kid accountable and didn’t blame the school for his actions. Do you see the problem here? The school is not responsible for your kid acting like a brat or being cruel and/or a bully, you and your kid are. Every classroom should have a camera in it or teachers wear bodycams so you can see how these kids behave. Teachers cannot get control in their classrooms because of these behavioral issues then the whole class suffers. There will always be children who excel and thrive under any circumstances, they are the exception- not the rule. These kids come from all walks of life as well- rich, poor, single, dual parents, big or small schools- the demographics for these kids are across the board. But the majority of kids are struggling at home and in the classroom. Parents aren’t helping their kids at home- they stick them in front of a screen to keep the kid out of their hair and expect the teacher to educate the kid in both education and how to act like a decent human. God forbid the teacher correct the child- the teacher gets punished, not the kid. It is an impossible situation. To top it off, we pay teachers pennies! They are the foundation for every single profession, they should have the best salaries in the country. If you want a real eye opener- ask each school system to give you the number of students on an IEP over the past 20, 10 and five years versus today. Those statistics will blow your mind! Then dig into the why of the increase in that number. If your kid is falling behind, help them or get them the help they need. Take responsibility for your child and hold your child accountable for their behavior. But do not expect a teacher who has 35+ students in her classroom for 5 hours a week to do it for you. Then wonder why they are living in your basement or can’t keep a job at 35 years old.

  5. Is now the right time to be addressing this? We just went through Covid. Those policies put in place by the feds, states, schools, etc. have essentially made this a lost generation. (The losses in learning are nearly seismic from what I hear from teachers and professors I know.) Not saying that things cannot be improved. And, I see that this is based on data over 10 years. But, sheesh. I’m also interested to know where we are going to put even more 3rd graders? The rooms are already full.
    IMO – the real solution is changing this from a “right” to education to a “responsibility to learn.” It is the job of you and your parents to learn. Hold the parents responsible. (I’ve listened to plenty of parents say “that’s the school’s job.”) It’s time to change the paradigm, IMO. [I’m probably echoing some of what Terina said.]

  6. Despite this distressing revelation, nary a word about the need fir statewide implementation of universal Pre-K education. Research consistently shows Pre-K education puts kids on the fast track to more and better learning as they advance through their schooling. Indiana: a state that doesn’t work for our children.

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