“Passing them along is a terrible disservice to the student.” These were words used recently by our House Speaker, Todd Huston, in response to 2023 Indiana Department of Education data, showing that 13,840 third-graders did not pass the I-READ-3, and of that number, 8,337 did not qualify for any of the exemptions as written in state law, buy yet only 412 were retained according to policy rules. The remainder of those students were then promoted to fourth grade.
Currently, we have legislators who are addressing this issue by proposing we tighten our current third grade retention policies. Whereas, on the surface, this may seem like a solution to the problem, the Indiana NAACP sees this as matching a solution to the wrong problem. Rather than how many students need to be retained, the fact that we have too many of our children struggling to meet third grade literacy standards is the problem.
Admittedly, this is a challenging issue and is not a new issue. As recently as this past year, the Indiana legislature attempted to address this crisis by requiring the implementation of the “Science of Reading” in all Indiana schools. No matter the accolades presented for this program, it needs to be acknowledged that there has not been sufficient time to determine this program’s effectiveness. There is such a thing called “causality” which in this case, would tell us that it takes a few years to yield results from any legislation. So why would we want to quickly attempt another solution that is against abundant research and subject to harm more children than it helps?
A national advocacy organization for students and families, The Education Trust, found that grade level retention leads to more incidents of bullying and victims of bullying, more prevalence of holding students of color back, and lower expectations for students of color among non-white families. Equally significant, is that retention disproportionately affects low-income students and students of color.
Additional research shows that retention policies tend to mean larger class sizes – a move that has shown to have a negative learning impact on students, particularly those with more needs.
Students with the greatest challenges academically, socially, emotionally, and developmentally need additional supports and early interventions, not more punitive measures that have been shown to increase drop-out rates on top of worsening student behavioral problems, causing more learning issues among students with social-emotional needs and leading to more student mental health concerns.
It is noted that our Secretary of Education, Dr. Katie Jenner, is also looking into the possibility of more retentions at the third grade level. However, she also says she is exploring additional literacy
supports. This appears to be a solution matching the identified problem of students not being able to read by third grade.
Solutions being proposed by research and other states are, targeted intensive tutoring, expanded learning time, reduced class sizes, more wraparound tutoring supports and resources, early interventions and screenings during grades Kg-2 and preschool, and summer literacy. Michigan, for one, has backtracked on its initiative to retain by repealing the law on retaining more students.
The state found that allocating more resources for tutoring and services was more productive than the punitive retention measures. Tennessee has also consulted an approach which includes more tutoring and resources instead of retaining children.
In conclusion, many alternative solutions do in fact exist – solutions far less Draconian in measure. We need to slow down the changes and let schools adapt to one set of new regulations before enacting entirely new policies. Therefore, we agree in part with some of House Speaker Houston’s thinking that student grade level promotions without meeting grade level requirements can do a terrible disservice to the student. However, a significant amount of research demonstrates that grade level retentions can be extremely harmful and can also do a terrible disservice to the student.
Therefore, let us put the brakes on this expanded retention concept, and let us work with Secretary Jenner in assessing the Science of Reading for its effectiveness, and let us evaluate more productive reading supports for those children in need.
-Sadie Harper-Scott, President Indiana NAACP State Conference