Indiana's early reading education reforms, passed by the legislature in 2010, are coming to fruition to the benefit of the state's children. A version of this commentary appeared in today's Indianapolis Star (click on the logo below to read it there).
During the 2010 legislative session, the Indiana Department of Education asked for and received from the General Assembly a simple but powerful mandate: Make sure every Hoosier student learns how to read before the end of third grade.
This year, after careful study and analysis, the DOE is putting its strategy for early reading success into practice statewide. Their efforts include a new research-based reading framework to help local schools build intensive and successful instruction. And in late March, for the first time Indiana third-graders will take the IREAD-3 test, a new evaluation to make sure they are reading at grade level.
If students don’t pass IREAD-3, they will receive special reading education during summer school and re-take the test in July. If they don’t pass this re-test, they will be retained in third grade.
The media has covered the upcoming IREAD-3 testing, but the stories I’ve read seem to focus primarily on students’ apprehension and tired arguments from administrators against accountability. As one who helped advocate for the new policy in 2010, I think it’s time for a refresher on the rationale for this reform on the eve of its implementation.
First and most obviously, reading is the foundational skill that makes all other education possible. Students who can’t read struggle in other subjects, and fall further and further behind their peers. Their odds of graduating high school, much less going on to college, plummet. And in reading education, the third grade is a critical year – when students transition from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn.’ If students aren’t reading well by the end of third grade, their opportunity to catch up is all but lost.
But in the old system, too many students who couldn’t read were simply passed on to the fourth grade and beyond.
This approach casually consigned students to a lifetime of struggle. Available statistics tell a dismal tale: Only 2% of students who struggle with reading go on to earn a college degree. Over 50% of people with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty. Nearly 70% of prison inmates nationally have less than a 4th grade level of reading. We owe our children something better.
What the DOE has adopted is a renewed focus on teaching kids to read - a new focus on research-based reading curriculum, dedicated 90-minute instructional blocks, and annual K-3 reading assessments that provide ongoing opportunities to get students additional help and support before they reach the end of third grade. And as a final safety net, an end to social promotion from third grade without some verification of reading proficiency.
In crafting this policy, we’ve followed the example of Florida, which ended social promotion in the late '90s and jumped ahead of Indiana on national reading achievement tests while spending consistently less per pupil. Florida cut its failure rates by more than a third in less than a decade. In the mid-90s, Hoosier students outperformed Floridian 4th graders by 15 points on national reading tests (NAEP). By 2011, the Sunshine State students were four points ahead.
But now we have a framework in place to achieve similar progress. The DOE’s strategy makes sense: Make reading education the top priority of the early grades. Implement a new test focused on reading (the I-READ-3) and if students don’t pass, get them special help and make sure they can pass before promoting them.
The overarching goal of this strategy is to minimize the number of students who must be retained in the third grade by teaching them more effectively, measuring their progress and helping them every step of the way. The IREAD tests are designed to keep any more students from falling through the cracks while holding schools accountable – the most visible manifestations of a renewed focus on reading that gives Hoosier students a better chance to succeed in the classroom and in life.
Miles is President & CEO of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, a regional coalition of corporate and university leaders focused on economic growth and issues like human capital.