Young students lost ground in reading during COVID-19 disruptions


New data from the State Department of Education shows fewer Idaho children are reading at grade level than before the pandemic. Overall proficiency on the Idaho Reading Indicator was the lowest in six years.

Students in kindergarten through third grade typically take the IRI standardized test near the beginning and end of each school year. The test was called off in the spring of 2020 amid widespread school closures, so preliminary data from fall 2020 offers the first glimpse of how COVID-19 school disruptions may have impacted student reading skills.

Reading proficiency fell in three of four grade levels, compared to 2019. Just under half of all kids started the school year reading at grade level, compared to 55 percent last fall. The drop wipes out gains from 2019, when reading proficiency in many grades showed an upward trend.

This year’s proficiency levels are slightly below results from 2018, when students first took this version of the IRI.

Kindergarten IRI scores were an exception. Around 43 percent of kindergarteners showed up to school ready to read — roughly the same as the year before.

*The IRI test itself changed in 2018.


Deb Glaser, a reading expert and consultant with the Boise School District said the numbers didn’t surprise her. They are pretty consistent with a national trend, she said.

She also doesn’t consider the 2020 results too far afield from IRI results in the past. The trouble is time —  already in short supply, and even more so this year because of pandemic disruptions — and helping students continue to make gains in reading even if they’re not face-to-face with a teacher.

“There is a sense of urgency right now, and it’s compounded by the inability to have kids in school,” Glaser said. “Unfortunately a lot of these kids who are below grade level and near grade level are the students who are going to benefit most in their growth from having a teacher who is present with them.”

The State Department of Education also tracks the progress of students as they age. The preliminary IRI data shows that two of three student cohorts started this school year with lower reading proficiency than they had last fall.

  • About 42 percent of first graders were proficient in reading this fall. When they started kindergarten in 2019, 43 percent of those students were considered proficient. Third graders were also less proficient than when they started second grade.
  • The new class of second graders bucked that trend. Around 55 percent of second graders tested as “proficient” this fall, compared to 50 percent when they entered first grade in 2019.

Educators are grappling with the question of what long-term impacts the pandemic will have on student learning, Glaser said. When it comes to reading, she said, teachers are going to have to give the best instruction they can with the resources they have available right now, and keep track of how well that instruction is working.

“We have to put all of our efforts into that goal of helping them overcome it,” she said. “We know the further behind a child gets, the harder it is to close the gap.”

State Department of Education chart on cohort IRI progress. In other news, the top 10 IRI results this fall were all posted by public charter schools. Of the top 20 best results, 16 are charters.

  • Sage International School:  83.9 percent proficient
  • Compass Public Charter: 77.2 percent proficient
  • North Star Charter: 76.3 percent proficient
  • Moscow Charter: 75.6 percent proficient
  • Vision Charter: 75.0 percent proficient
  • North Idaho STEM Charter Academy: 74.6 percent proficient
  • Inspire Academics: 74.6 percent proficient
  • Victory Charter School: 72.2 percent proficient
  • Xavier Charter School: 70.9 percent proficient
  • Anser of Idaho: 69.2 percent proficient

These IRI results are preliminary, and final results are expected in November. State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra said in a news release, Tuesday, that the state department will analyze district-level results and look at how groups like English language learners and students with disabilities are performing.

Preliminary data is used by teachers as a benchmark for where they need to work more with students to improve over the coming year. Barring further disruptions, students will be back on track to take the IRI next spring.

“It’ll be interesting to see in the spring, what happens,” said Evelyn Johnson, CEO of Idaho’s Lee Pesky Learning Center. “How much growth do we see at the end of the school year that’s definitely going to be marked, at least for the foreseeable future, by a lot of disruption and unique learning environments?”

This article was updated on Oct. 29 to include comments from Deb Glaser and Evelyn Johnson.  An early version of this story said the new IRI data came from the State Board of Education. That data was provided by the State Department of Education. 

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