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Literacy bill that would hold back thousands more third graders advances in Indiana

Janley Barco, 8, testifies on Senate Bill 1 in front of the Indiana Statehouse education committee, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024, in Indianapolis. Indiana lawmakers advanced the bill Tuesday, Feb. 27, that would hold back thousands more third graders who don't pass the state's literacy test, rejecting opponents' arguments that it could burden schools and emotionally damage children. (AP Photo/Isabella Volmert)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday that would hold back thousands more third graders who don’t pass the state’s literacy test, rejecting opponents’ arguments that it could burden schools and emotionally damage children.

The Indiana Department of Education says about 18% of third graders did not pass Indiana’s reading test last year. GOP lawmakers argue that schools exempt too many kids who fail it, allowing them to pass through to fourth grade.

If the proposal becomes law, second graders would be required to take the all-important reading test, which is currently optional for that grade, as an early indicator of their progress. If they pass, students would not have to take it again in the third grade.

If students again do not pass in the third grade, they can attend summer school and take the test one more time. If they choose not to or do not pass the test after three tries, they will be held back from the fourth grade.

About 7,000 more students would repeat third grade starting in the 2025-26 school year, according to an estimate attached to the bill.

The state House voted 69-27 to advance the legislation largely along party lines. The bill requires final approval by the state Senate, where it originated, before heading to the desk of Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb. He supports the measure, along with the state Education Department.

Many Republicans, who control both houses of the General Assembly, say students need the intervention now after declines in the literacy rate for a decade.

“The retention piece of this bill has received the majority of the attention,” the bill’s Republican sponsor, state Rep. Jake Teshka, told lawmakers Tuesday. “It’s really a bill about early intervention and giving a student every possible opportunity to read by third grade.”

The bill does allow exemptions, including for some English-language learners and students with disabilities. It also establishes reading assessments for students as young as kindergartners so parents and teachers know where they stand.

Statehouse Democrats have repeatedly voted against the bill, arguing that holding students back will strain school resources. Others say holding students back can have harmful social and emotional effects.

On par with many states, Indiana last year changed how reading is taught to elementary school children and implemented a phonetic strategy often referred to as the science of reading. Some opponents said Indiana lawmakers should let schools fully implement the measure before making other changes.

A Democratic proposal to delay the retention policy by a year failed on the House floor Monday.

“Why do we continue to come here year after year and change the way we do education for our kids?” the Democratic floor leader, state Rep. Cherrish Pryor, asked lawmakers Tuesday. “The kids can’t keep up with it, the teachers can’t keep up with it, the parents can’t keep up with it. I don’t know who can keep up.”