Elwood Haynes Elementary School student James Cecil is “kind of scared” he might fail a state-mandated reading test in March and have to repeat the third grade.
He is not alone.
In less than a month, third-graders across Indiana will take the IREAD-3 test. The exam is a result of state legislation aimed at ensuring all kids can read proficiently by the end of third grade. According to the law, students who fail the standardized test cannot move on to the fourth grade.
That has students like James worried.
James said he can read just fine and is confident he should do well on the test. It’s the unknown that scares him most.
“I’m kind of scared that something might pop up that I don’t know, and I won’t know how to solve it,” he said.
James and four of his classmates said the approaching test is putting a lot of pressure on them.
“I’m nervous I won’t pass,” Colin Horner said.
Teacher Judy Rice looked her students in the eyes and tried to reassure them.
“All we can ask is that you do your best,” she said.
Rice said she understands their concerns, though. This is the first big test her students will take.
They will have 62 minutes to answer 40 multiple-choice questions that test their vocabulary, reading comprehension and word recognition skills.
A lot is riding on their performance, Rice said.
Eastern-Howard School Corp. Superintendent Tracy Caddell said he isn’t sure how he feels about giving a high-stakes exam like this to children who are still so young.
“Students are always apprehensive about taking high-stakes tests,” he said. “And these are little guys. We do worry about their emotions.”
Taylor Primary School Principal Shannon Richards said parents are concerned, too.
“I’m a parent of a third-grader, and it scares me,” Richards said. “My daughter is bright. She’s a great reader but a poor test taker.”
Indiana Department of Education Communications Director Stephanie Sample said students who can read should have no problem passing the exam.
“It’s pretty basic stuff,” she said.
That may be true for students who have a clear-cut path to success, said Elwood Haynes Assistant Principal Kathi Hoover. But many of her students face constant obstacles in their everyday lives, she said.
“There are boulders in their path,” Hoover said.
More than 80 percent of her students are eligible for free and reduced lunches, she said, and many live in single-parent households or are being raised by grandparents.
Rice said these issues are all potential problems standing in the way of students trying to succeed on the exam.
“They may not be focused on the test because they’re just trying to survive,” she said.
Rice said it’s sad that she may have to look at students who can obviously read and tell them they have to stay in third grade another year because they failed one test.
However, Sample said that’s not true. Students will have a second chance to take the exam in the summer. Even if they fail a second time, schools have options, she said.
Local educators can decide whether to place those students who fail in a fourth-grade classroom the following year, Sample said. The law just requires those students to receive third-grade reading instruction, take third-grade ISTEP and be officially reported as a third-grader for another year.
Kokomo-Center Schools Title I Director Sandi Quinton doesn’t buy it.
“How can that be considered a local decision when you have to do all these things and treat them like third-graders?” she asked.
Sample admitted that realistically, most students who fail will be retained in third grade.
“There might be some exceptions if the kids are gifted in math,” she said. “But that will probably be the exception, not the rule.”
Northwestern Elementary School Principal Ron Owings hates that part of the law.
“If you know me, you know I’m absolutely not a fan of retention,” he said. “I helped fight the Department of Education on this to no avail.”
Richards said Taylor Primary would never consider retaining students based on one test if the law didn’t require them to.
“We don’t have that local control,” Richards said.
She’s not even sure the test will be a good measure of whether her students can read. Richards said there are other tools that give “far more intricate” information than one, 40-question standardized test.
Like it or not, though, the test is coming, and local educators are doing their best to prepare students.
Western Primary School Principal Heather Hendrich said her teachers are trying to think of “everything under the moon” to help their students.
They’ve implemented a 90-minute reading block and have small-group reading time. An aide also comes in to help students with phonics.
Her students took mock IREAD tests, too.
“They did pretty well,” Hendrich said. “They think they’re prepared. We’re feeling confident about it.”
Several districts are targeting parents of students who are at risk of failing the exam.
Richards said she’s asked those parents to work with their children more.
“It’s crunch time,” she said. “Just reading 15 minutes a night with your child isn’t going to cut it.”
Quinton said teachers in Kokomo are sending packets of information containing a book and a corresponding worksheet to parents of at-risk students.
“It’s practice that makes sense,” Quinton said.
Eastern Elementary School has paid to train two teachers in reading recovery, at a cost of $20,000, Caddell said. The teachers take the lowest-level readers in each class and give them “intense” remediation.
The school is also using technology to try to boost literacy. Caddell announced recently that Eastern Elementary will issue iPads to all kindergartners next year. The tablets will be filled with children’s books and applications that help teach reading skills.
Caddell said he can’t wait to see the results of the IREAD-3 test, which will be released the first week in April.
“I want to see if our reading strategies are working,” he said. “I think we’re going to do really well.”
Owings said he has no idea how his students will fare on the exam.
He said none of them seemed to struggle with the practice test they took, so he hopes that’s a good sign.
“But even if one person fails, that hurts,” he said.
What schools will do once the results come in is still unclear.
Most districts are planning summer remediation sessions to prepare students who fail to take the second test. They don’t know what that will look like, though, because they don’t know how many students will fail.
Owings said he doesn’t know how the remediation will be funded, either.
“The cure is intense remediation, but the state is not funding that,” Owings said. “We’ll have to get creative. Our budget is already bare bones.”
Third-grader Malori Nichols hopes she doesn’t have to worry about remediation. She wants to pass the first time, she said.
“I’m just ready to go to the fourth grade,” she said.