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Test of the reading test

Sen. Luke Kenley said a bill he sponsored in 2010 was intended to make a strong statement that reading is important. What he didn’t intend was to require third-graders to pass a test or be held back in school.

But that’s the likely result for some 8- and 9-year-olds, thanks to the Indiana Department of Education’s interpretation of Kenley’s bill. The new IREAD-3 test, for which results were released Tuesday, is likely to result in hundreds of Indiana children held back next year or, at least, pulled out of fourth-grade classes for reading instruction.

“I consider it disgusting that the DOE has decided that a one-day test is going to determine the long-term effects in the life of a 10-year-old,” said Steve Yager, superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools, “Research does not support retention as a viable alternative to a child not being able to read.”

Similar sentiments from educators and parents around the state have prompted Kenley to put the Department of Education on notice that it risks a lawsuit based on its interpretation of the law. His high-profile disagreement with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett should be a signal to a legislative panel reviewing the department that what’s best for children does not always drive decision-making there.

The Department of Education did not flout legislative intent without warning. Michael Pettibone – a member of the State Board of Education and superintendent of Adams Central Community Schools – raised strenuous objections. When the rules for the new reading law were presented to the state board in 2011, Pettibone complained in a written statement:

“I would like to emphasize and caution that material coming from the State Board of Education and (the DOE) be educationally based and not politically driven,” he said. “Retention is not a documented, researched-based tool to improve reading or learning.”

The department ignored Pettibone’s protest and pushed ahead, with the reading test administered for the first time this spring. Adams Central Elementary School students fared well, posting a 92.2 percent pass rate, but the superintendent still is emphatically opposed to how the law has been implemented.

“We already have assessments in place to tell us where our kids are on reading,” he said. “If we have a student who’s not reading at grade level, we were going to give him remediation whether he passed the test or not. We didn’t need the state telling us to do that.”

In fact, Pettibone said a law to emphasize reading wasn’t needed.

“We knew that,” he said. “That’s why seven or eight years ago our goal became 100 percent of our kids reading at grade level by grade 3. We said it out loud. We implemented full-day kindergarten before the state even made the money available to pay for it because we knew how important it was in reaching that goal.”

Likewise, the districts now facing the punitive effects of the IREAD-3 test already know the value of grade-level reading and have taken similar actions to help students.

Get Nichols, director of elementary administration at Fort Wayne Community Schools, said teachers there believed the 70-minute multiple-choice test was a fair assessment, but also believed it was redundant, squeezed between two sections of ISTEP+ testing.

“That’s a lot of high-stakes testing for 8- and 9-year-olds,” Nichols said.

At FWCS, just over 78 percent of third-graders passed. Those who didn’t will have one more chance to pass, then the district will decide how to intervene, Nichols said, based on conversations with parents and teachers. Aside from a nominal amount of money provided for summer school, there will be no additional resources provided by the state.

Yager said Southwest Allen will follow the law as it was written. His district had a 91.1 percent passing rate.

“We’ll re-test the few who didn’t pass,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense that kids (with individualized learning programs for special education) should be re-tested. They already are overassessed.”

In the end, the legislation has become another stick for the Department of Education to use against public schools. The select legislative commission reviewing its work meets again Monday, when its members should demand evidence that the department’s implementation of IREAD-3 – and a host of other bills approved at Bennett’s behest – is intended to help children and not politically driven.