At-risk population exempted from high-stakes testing

Rep. Soñia Galaviz

For years, educators have watched as students learning English, including immigrants and refugees, have struggled to take the state’s high-stakes literacy assessment.

The test — written in a language they didn’t yet fully understand — made students anxious and produced false negatives, incorrectly indicating that they couldn’t read. In those cases, the test was measuring English comprehension ability, not reading. 

Now, beginning English language learners (ELL) in grades K-3 will no longer have to experience the “undue stress,” “burden,” and “intense pressure” that teachers said came with taking the Idaho Reading Indicator (IRI), a statewide assessment that measures early literacy skills.

At this year’s legislative session, freshman Rep. Soñia Galaviz, D-Boise, a teacher at Whittier Elementary School, and Sen. Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise, co-sponsored House Bill 566, which provides the exemption. It was signed into law by Gov. Brad Little on March 11.

“This was brought to me by educators and it was a problem in need of a solution. I wanted to be responsive to educators,” Galaviz said.

The bill exempts students scoring at limited English proficiency Levels 1 and 2 — the beginning stages of language acquisition — who are typically new to the country and school system (not enrolled in a U.S. school for two full school years).

“It’s not appropriate for us to be assessing their reading skills,” said Ryan Cantrell, chief deputy superintendent at the Idaho Department of Education. “We know they are not fluent. There was no way they were ever going to pass that test.”

Nearly 68% of all Level 1 and 2 students who took the IRI last year scored at the lowest tier, or well below grade level.

“It’s data that’s not useful to teachers,” Galaviz said.

Plus, it’s stressful and confusing for students: “Some get a sense that it’s an important test, and they’re frustrated. Other students don’t understand what they’re doing in the first place,” she said.

The IDE could not confirm the number of students potentially impacted because certain student demographics — like where they previously attended school — are collected locally. 

But Galaviz believes up to 1,400 students could be eligible for the exemption.

In all, 7,335 K-3 students took the state’s English language proficiency exam last year. Of those, 3,871 students scored at Level 1 or 2. A portion of them — those new to the country — would have been eligible.

Granting students the exemption will be a local-level decision made in collaboration with parents and teachers, said Maria Puga, English Learner/Title III coordinator.

“We want to provide students a way to feel welcomed at their school and part of the community,” Puga said.

According to the IDE, these districts boast the highest populations of ELL students testing at Levels 1 and 2:

  1. Boise
  2. Nampa
  3. West Ada
  4. Jerome
  5. Caldwell

Improving reading is consequential in Idaho. Last year, it pushed $73 million into statewide literacy programs.

“I’m always thrilled to help our public schools — that’s my north star for being at the Legislature,” Galaviz said.

Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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