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Literacy overhaul bill — with third grade retention requirement — heads to Indiana governor

Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger, speaks on the Senate floor during session on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

INDIANAPOLIS (INDIANA CAPITAL CHRONICLE) — Indiana senators gave final approval Thursday for a literacy overhaul bill that will require reading-deficient third graders to be held back a year in school.

Senate Bill 1, which seeks to remedy Indiana’s literacy “crisis” by requiring schools to administer the statewide IREAD test in second grade — a year earlier than current requirements — and directing new, targeted support to at-risk students and those struggling to pass the exam. 

But if, after three tries, a third grader can’t meet the IREAD standard, legislators want school districts to retain them.

That number could reach into the thousands according to recent data.

While much of the rest of the bill has received bipartisan support, the retention language has been passionately debated in both chambers

Numerous teachers, parents and education experts argued there are various, negative long-term effects for students who are forced to retake third grade. But Republican lawmakers remained firm that Indiana does a disservice to kids who are promoted to the fourth grade without foundational reading skills.

The Senate voted 29-16 on Thursday in favor of the bill. Seven Republicans joined Democrats in rejecting the measure, in part over the House chamber’s deletion of dyslexia-specific supports for young learners. 

Senate Bill 1 now heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb for his review and signature. The governor has not said where stands on the final version of the proposal but included third grade literacy — and mandatory retention — in his 2024 legislative agenda.

Bill author Sen. Linda Rogers, R-Granger, and other Republicans have repeatedly said the proposal is not a “retention bill,” and holding Hoosier kids back in school should “be a last resort.” They maintain, too, that if literacy supports and remediation in Senate Bill 1 are properly implemented, no children will have to be retained.

Exceptions are carved out in Rogers’ bill for students who have been retained in third grade before, special-education students, certain English language learners, and students who pass the math portion of the statewide assessment and receive remedial reading instruction.

Schools will also be required to offer summer school to struggling readers starting this year, although the final version of the bill does not force students to attend.

Attempting to compromise on retention, critics called for that portion of the bill to be put on hold until the 2025-2026 academic year, when all Hoosier teachers are supposed to be trained up on science of reading instruction.

Republican lawmakers rejected the delay, however. Under the latest draft, the retention provision takes effect for the upcoming 2024-2025 school calendar.

Last year, 13,840 third-graders did not pass IREAD, according to test data. Of those students, 5,503 received an exemption and 8,337 did not. But about 95% of students without an exemption moved onto 4th grade and just 412 were retained.