Indiana and Ohio Choose Different Approaches for Helping Struggling Readers

Indiana and Ohio have recently become part of a group of states that now require teachers to incorporate the science of reading into their curriculum, but they have shown contrasting approaches regarding another reading strategy: holding back struggling third graders.

Ohio, which had enforced a policy since the past decade of retaining third graders who performed poorly on state reading assessments, terminated this mandate last summer through a legislative bill that also embraced the science of reading.

In contrast, Indiana has reintroduced the compulsory retention of underperforming third graders after a seven-year hiatus. Governor Eric Holcomb signed a law mandating that students who do not achieve proficiency on the state’s IREAD-3 tests must be retained in third grade, with limited exceptions. The state projects that the new law will result in 7,500 third graders being retained in 2025, which is 18 times more than the current figure of just over 400.

Third-grade retention and the science of reading have generated significant interest, albeit over a decade apart, prompting numerous states to adopt them. Both Ohio and Indiana initially embraced the third-grade retention initiative in 2012, with Indiana later withdrawing before reintroducing it this year, while Ohio never fully committed to it.

The decline in reading scores on the NAEP, also known as the “nation’s report card,” observed in both states even before the pandemic and further deterioration thereafter have led legislators to reassess their strategies, experts noted.

“Third grade is undoubtedly a crucial juncture,” remarked Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Continuing ineffective methods is futile. It necessitates a shift towards more targeted, intensive interventions.”

According to experts like Timothy Shanahan, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, the critical aspect lies not just in adopting appealing measures but in ensuring substantial alterations in classroom instruction.

Both Ohio and Indiana appear to be fulfilling these prerequisites by enhancing teacher training, introducing new instructional materials, and providing additional support for students. Nevertheless, the efficacy and utilization of these strategies by educators, schools, and parents remain to be evaluated.

There is an evident urgency for immediate action, particularly in Indiana.

“Roughly one in five students in Indiana struggle to read proficiently by the end of third grade,” disclosed Indiana State Rep. Linda Rogers, one of the law’s proponents. “This is unacceptable. Failure to acquire fundamental reading skills by this stage will impede learning across other subjects.”

Both Ohio and Indiana are taking significant strides in revamping reading instruction for young students, albeit through distinct approaches. (Patrick O’Donnell)

Katie Jenner, Indiana’s education superintendent, emphasized to the legislature the imperative of addressing the staggering number of third graders unable to achieve proficiency on Indiana’s IREAD-3 exam, as witnessed in 2023.

“Students who advance without mastering these skills never catch up. It’s a harsh reality, but a truthful one,” Jenner stated.

Indiana’s new law also mandates increased testing for second and third graders to identify struggling readers and provides additional interventions, such as summer reading programs for students lagging behind.

Jenner articulated that these initiatives, along with the retention requirement, serve as a natural progression in the state’s literacy agenda following the focus on implementing appropriate reading methodologies and teacher training last year.

The concept of grade retention emerged prominently in California in 1998 when it became law, gaining national recognition when Florida embraced the policy in 2002 under then-Governor Jeb Bush. Subsequently, several states implemented similar laws, albeit with distinctions in exemptions for specific student categories.

All these initiatives share a common rationale: Third grade signifies a crucial transition from learning to read to reading to learn, necessitating proficient reading skills for mastering other subjects. Proponents argue that students must attain reading proficiency by this stage to avert setbacks in subsequent grades or prevent long-term literacy challenges.

Initial outcomes of the retention strategy indicate promising reading improvements in the initial years post-retention, as indicated by certain studies, although these gains often diminish by high school. Notably, Indiana witnessed substantial results under a prior version of third-grade retention, according to a study by Brown University.

However, detractors across multiple states voiced objections each time retention bills were proposed, citing research that underlines modest gains and adverse psychological effects on retained students, including teasing, feelings of inadequacy, and social disconnection. Moreover, studies highlighted disproportionate retention rates among Black and Hispanic students compared to white counterparts.

Indiana was an early proponent of the third-grade retention initiative when former state superintendent Tony Bennett advocated for it in 2010. Although the legislature did not concur, the state board of education enforced it through an administrative regulation in 2012.

Indiana relaxed this standard in 2017-18, urging schools to consider overall student performance in various subjects, not solely reading outcomes, to determine grade promotion.

In 2012, Ohio witnessed substantial alterations in third-grade reading policies when then-Governor John Kasich secured approval for the “Third Grade Reading Guarantee,” intensifying testing to identify struggling readers and mandating retention for students with inadequate scores.

Distinct from Indiana’s proficiency-based promotion criteria, Ohio set a lower benchmark that would incrementally rise over time. This triggered recurring debates whenever the state school board deliberated over the score escalation. Despite gradual increments, reservations from numerous board members prevented the score from reaching proficiency levels.

Ohio enforced the retention law for approximately 3,600 students annually before several Republicans, alongside Democrats, opposed it last year.

“Rather than a universal literacy approach, this change will grant local and parental autonomy to districts in decision-making about grade retention,” stated Republican Rep. Gayle Manning while advocating against retention last year.

The conclusive agreement by a joint House and Senate committee offered parents the final say in retention as part of a comprehensive state budget bill. Despite resolute support from numerous Ohio Senate Republicans for retaining the requirement, they abided by the decision, considering the bill’s incorporation of the science of reading and ongoing reading support for students.

“I wasn’t initially in favor of discontinuing retention, but we included provisions I advocated for,” remarked Senate Education Committee Chairman Andrew Brenner, a staunch advocate of the science of reading. “I believe these measures will greatly aid in redirecting students towards academic progress in the forthcoming years.”

The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce is currently unable to ascertain the number of students spared retention this academic year due to legislative amendments.

In contrast to Ohio’s approach, Indiana Republicans rebuffed attempts by Democrats to grant parents the authority to decide on grade retention, aligning with Ohio’s stance from the previous year. Proposals to postpone the law until the effects of the science of reading implementations on scores were evaluated were similarly denied.

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