Should Schools Hold Back Struggling Readers Based on a Single Standardized Test?

Under a new plan in Indiana, third graders who fail a reading test will be held back. But there aren't any new resources to actually teach them.

Is holding students back based on their performance on a single standardized test the way to help struggling readers? The Indiana State Board of Education certainly thinks so. They've approved a new plan that mandates that third graders will have to pass a new statewide reading test before they can advance to fourth grade. And, according to the plan, students who've been retained once could potentially be held back a second time if they fail the test again.

The number of Indiana students that could potentially be retained based on the test results is staggering. Every year almost 33 percent of the state's third graders currently fail the reading portion of the ISTEP, the statewide proficiency exam. Although a new reading test is being designed to specifically measure third grade reading proficiency, if its results have any correlation to the ISTEP, Indiana's third grade classrooms are destined for overcrowding.

Indiana education officials say taking a hard line on third grade reading results is non-negotiable. In our nation's education system, that's generally the last year that classroom-wide instruction in the fundamentals of how to read takes place. In subsequent grades, it's assumed that kids already know how to read, and the focus shifts to reading as a means of understanding content. Doing something is essential because it's not uncommon for middle and high school teachers, particularly in low income areas, to encounter students who have been passed along from grade to grade because of social promotion, but can't read past a third or fourth grade level, and thus can't understand their texts.

In 2003, Florida began requiring that students pass the third grade reading portion of the state test, the FCAT, before moving on to fourth grade. In the immediate aftermath, the number of students retained spiked significantly. But, Florida turned things around by investing significant financial resources in improving reading instruction, and the number of students passing the test has jumped.

Unfortunately, Indiana's not planning on a similar investment of resources. Although they're paying McGraw-Hill to develop the new test, they're not giving schools more money to improve reading instruction. The state says cash-strapped districts will simply have to reallocate existing funds to pay for reading interventions, teacher training, or the purchase of more innovative literacy programs.

Simply taking a standardized test that shows that yes, kids are behind in reading, and then making them repeat the same grade over again, isn't necessarily going to solve anything. If everything stays the same and no new investments or approaches to actually teaching kids are adopted, what's to say Indiana's students will do better the second time around?

photo public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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