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Required state reading test could move down to second grade

Hoosier children would begin taking standardized tests a year earlier — in second grade — under a bill the Senate Education Committee took up today.

While there is trepidation among some critics, who think second grade is too early to start standardized testing, proponents of the idea argue it would reduce the number of tests given at third grade and give kids an extra year and more chances to pass a test that can be used to block them from advancing to fourth grade.

Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, Senate Bill 169’s author, said the bill is meant as a fix for concerns raised by teachers about the number of tests given at third grade. The reading test, known as IREAD, generally is given to third-graders in March. Those students also must take the state ISTEP test in English and math, which is administered in grades 3 to 8. Usually third-graders take the reading test between the two ISTEP exams.

“It was suggested to me from a group of teachers that if we move IREAD from third grade to second grade, we would free up valuable instruction time for third-graders, identify reading deficiencies early and allow more time for remediation,” Houchin said.

But some teachers think a standardized reading test is a waste of time no matter when it is given.

Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith said the exam doesn’t give teachers enough detail about why students are struggling with reading or what skills they need help with.

“IREAD tells me, as a teacher, if my student is passing or failing,” Meredith said. “It gives me no breakdown of why that is, no way to give enrichment and no indication of what areas they are not doing well in. It’s very frustrating as a teacher. I don’t think changing it to second grade will make a difference in that frustration.”

Houchin said state Superintendent Glenda Ritz was among those who told her that the test could be given in second grade, as students learn reading skills in first and second grade. But Ritz’s lobbyist, John Barnes, said she would oppose the bill.

“We feel like it’s not developmentally appropriate to do high-stakes testing like this below third grade,” Barnes said.

The switch also would come with a one-time extra cost of $1.2 million, as both second- and third-graders would take IREAD the first year, scheduled for 2015-16.

Ritz’s predecessor, Tony Bennett, pushed the creation of the reading test, saying Indiana needed to draw the line on promoting students who couldn’t read. But the rules actually allow kids who fail to continue to fourth grade, as long as they are grouped with children who are also on a third-grade reading level for reading lessons.

Last year, more than 90 percent of students who took IREAD passed it, up from 84 percent the first year it was given in 2011. If students don’t pass the test the first time, current law and the proposed bill allow them to retake it several times.

Doug McRae, a former test-maker with CTB/McGraw-Hill, said in an email that testing younger elementary school students isn’t necessarily a problem, so long as the tests are used to judge the specific skills they were designed to measure. The company makes Indiana’s state tests.

Although a reading exam like IREAD can evaluate how well student can recognize letter patterns and vowel sound, for example, a standardized test cannot show whether a child knows how to read by itself.

“There are some reading skills that standardized tests cannot measure, that only can be measured by teachers listening to kids read and making their own informed judgments,” McRae said. “Both types of information can and should contribute to a full set of information for any individual student.”