Last week, the Indiana Department of Education released the results from the first round of I-READ tests, a new assessment to ensure that Hoosier third-graders are reading at grade level before moving on.
The I-READ is about reading proficiency, but what else do the inaugural results tell us about the state of education in Indiana?
84% of third-graders statewide passed the test, a strong outcome that nonetheless shows that the DOE’s focus on early reading education is vitally important to the future of our young people and our state:
Nearly two of every ten students who took the test were unable to demonstrate basic reading abilities; without the I-READ, it’s likely that many of these kids would have been passed along to fourth grade, continuing to fall further and further behind their peers. Without strong reading skills, all other learning becomes a struggle and the chances of making it through high school drop precipitously.
The I-READ measures how well our students are doing, but also how well our schools are teaching. The test comes with a host of other reforms from the state being implemented at the district level – a new reading curriculum, dedicated 90-minute blocks of reading instruction, annual reading assessments and the opportunity to get extra help in summer school.
Being retained in third grade, for those students who fail the I-READ twice, is a last resort. As the other changes take root, I expect we’ll see I-READ scores continue to improve, a trend that will send ripples along subsequent grades as kids arrive better prepared to learn and succeed.
The I-READ results also provide insight into the performance of specific districts and schools – and once again, the Indianapolis Public Schools lags the state. Only 67% of IPS third-graders passed the test, a 17% difference. (This is similar to the district’s deficit relative to the state average in high school graduation rate, further confirming the link between early reading and ultimate achievement.) While a third of Indiana schools met or exceeded a 90% pass rate, 56% of all IPS schools ranked in the lowest 10% of schools statewide.
In fairness, IPS does serve a population of students with difficult circumstances. But comparing IPS with high-poverty schools around Indiana – schools ranking among the top 25% of the state in free and reduced lunch-eligible students – IPS still comes up short, as these schools collectively managed a 70% pass rate.
Interestingly enough, nine high-poverty schools did achieve a 90% pass rate, showing that an environment focused on achievement can overcome any hurdles. Four of these schools are in Indianapolis: Ernie Pyle School 90, the Merle Sidener Gifted Academy, Christel House, and the Padua Academy. All of these are either magnets, charters or private schools – institutions operating largely or completely outside of IPS’ centralized control.
This leads to a final observation: IPS faces a lot of challenges. But the top-down district structure is not equipped to address them – indeed, it is likely part of the problem. Nationally and locally, we know what works in urban education: School-level leadership with flexibility from district rules and contracts, a culture focused on learning and empowering teachers.
A truly transformative approach is to decentralize the district into a portfolio of quasi-independent schools (a model similar to that which has been employed with success by the Recovery School District in New Orleans). This would allow innovation and incentivize great teaching, and also push money that is consumed by central administration into the classroom (which could double spending per student by some estimates).
Less than half of IPS students pass Math and English I-STEP requirements. Graduation rates lag the state average by more than twenty percent. Six of the seven schools identified by the state as failures for six consecutive years under Public Law 221 are IPS schools. The I-READ results are another data point in a compelling indictment of the current approach.
As innovation and accountability take hold across the state, and as students continue to struggle with reading and other subjects in IPS, there should be broad consensus that dramatic change is needed.