In a few months, thousands of Indiana students will start fourth grade without ever having taken the state’s third grade literacy exam — the test that typically decides whether or not a student can advance.
It marks the first time in nine years that third-graders haven’t taken IREAD, which was among the statewide standardized tests canceled when the coronavirus forced schools to close and shifted learning online. And the gap year has already opened the door for questions about its value.
As state and school leaders grapple with how to move forward, State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has said the current situation bolsters her argument for Indiana to get rid of the specialized test. She favors assessing reading progress as part of the more general standardized exam students take in grades 3-8, ILEARN.
“Our charge at the department is to eliminate burden for you,” McCormick said, addressing school leaders during a webinar last month. “We are trying to be realistic and sensible about assessment.”
The idea has found support among some district leaders, who say they have more efficient and less stressful ways to measure students’ reading ability. But it faces pushback from lawmakers and advocates who want consistent, public data to monitor inequities, especially now.
Nationwide, standardized tests were growing increasingly “fragile” before the pandemic, said Chris Domaleski, a testing expert at the Center for Assessment, which works with states and school systems around the country. The conversation about IREAD in Indiana is an example of how school closures nationwide could push states to rethink how they test, he said.
“If you have states that are suspending the assessments and discovering that they can still accomplish many of their policies without them, then you might see many states migrate away from them” he said.
States won’t be able to stop standardized testing completely, because federal mandates are still in place and were only lifted for one year because of the coronavirus. But Domaleski said the number of tests and how the results are used, “may be questioned in a way that they weren’t before.”
“We were already having the conversation on burning kids out with testing and truly the measures that we should use to show whether kids are learning,” said Lawrence Township Superintendent Shawn Smith, who supports merging the two tests. “I think the virus has obviously made us all pause and look at what we are doing with kids, how do we measure kids.”
Literacy has become a point of interest nationally as reading scores remain persistently low. In Michigan, a high-profile, recently settled lawsuit alleged schools deprived students of their right to learn how to read. In Colorado, a Chalkbeat investigation found some districts serving tens of thousands of students were using discredited or inconsistent approaches to teach reading.
IREAD is one of the longest-running and most consistent tests in Indiana, implemented in 2011 as part of the state’s push to improve literacy. But this isn’t the first time concerns have been raised about whether it’s too much to ask of third-graders, who also take ILEARN. In 2015, a failed effort aimed to move the test up to second grade.
Few students are held back because of the high-stakes literacy exam. Students who fail in the spring are given a chance to retake it in the summer. In 2018, 87% of Indiana students passed. Students who don’t pass can be promoted if their school offers additional reading instruction, and they can take the test again the following year.
“We don’t need an IREAD assessment,” said Pike Township Superintendent Flora Reichanadter. “We have several other options to measure student mastery of reading skills.”
Those other options include conducting their own tests throughout the year, which typically offer teachers more frequent and faster results. Reichanadter said IREAD is flawed because students who grew up with access to technology have an advantage in navigating its online format.
But some advocates have raised concerns about leaving it to schools to assess whether third-graders have hit the state benchmark for reading. Unlike state testing data, schools currently aren’t required to release the results of their own tests publicly.
It’s important that literacy data is released to the public, said Mark Russell, director of advocacy and family services for the Indianapolis Urban League. His organization strives to help the groups of students more likely to earn lower IREAD scores, including students who are black, Latinx, or English language learners.
“Let’s just say experience has taught us to be wary of assurances by underfunded and overstretched schools about achieving benchmarks for our children like that,” Russell said. “[Third-grade literacy] is a key benchmark that I don’t think we can afford to dismiss.”
McCormick’s push to change the test would require support from the State Board of Education or the governor to change Indiana’s current mandate. The State Board of Education‘s technical advisory committee “is reviewing options,” spokesperson Molly Craft said Monday.
Conversations about the test’s future should wait until January, when the new, governor-appointed state superintendent is in place, said Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman. He still sees value in the IREAD exam, especially at a time when the state will need to figure out quickly how far behind students fell during closures.
“I’m concerned that we are not focusing on student learning and what’s best for kids at the moment,” Behning said. “Because the clear thing I’ve heard from superintendents, parents, and educators is there is a tremendous amount of disparity in terms of whether or not you have the access to high quality virtual learning.”
Behning is among those pushing for students who missed the exam in third grade to take it next year, possibly in the fall. It may be too late to use IREAD to hold students back, he said, but it could still help schools identify who needs help catching up.
Indiana was granted a one-year waiver from the federal government to cancel the test, but it’s up to states to decide whether or not they want to make up those exams. McCormick is pushing for schools not to make-up the high-stakes literacy test, even if school buildings reopen next year.
Administering IREAD in the fall would be a heavy and potentially expensive task for the state and time consuming for schools, district leaders said. Assessment expert Domaleski said it would be a “tone-deaf solution.” But not making it up likely means the state skips a year of collecting detailed data on how well this year’s third-graders can read.
Initially, Decatur Township Superintendent Matt Prusiecki said he supported making up the standardized test in the fall. IREAD is a useful and consistent state test, he said. But that was when it seemed like school buildings would reopen at full capacity. Since that now seems unlikely, Prusiecki said state tests are no longer his priority.
“I’m not saying the same thing that I probably said a month, month and a half, ago,” Prusiecki said. “Testing in the fall is not my concern right now. My concern is that … we are able to provide the best instruction for the families we serve.”