Analysis: A closer look at Idaho’s ‘college-ready’ ranking

Education leaders and Idaho Republicans were eager to tout a high state ranking from U.S. News and World Report.

But the college readiness score is just a piece of the picture. Idaho’s scores were all over the place — and, in the aggregate, U.S. News and World Report gave Idaho’s education system mediocre marks.

First, the good news: Idaho ranked No. 5 in the nation for college readiness. That’s based on the overall percentage of students who hit benchmark scores on the 2017 SAT or ACT. In Idaho, 55.2 percent of all Idaho students reached benchmark scores. Regionally, the rate was 42 percent.

Yes, that is good news. And with it came the rush to politicize and praise the rankings.

“More great news to be ignored by Down-on-Idaho/’Scroll-down state’ Democrats,” tweeted the Idaho Republican Party, which was first to hop on the No. 5 ranking.

“Teachers across Idaho are working hard to prepare our high school students for the next step and it is great to see those efforts and the results recognized,” State Board of Education President Linda Clark said in a news release.

“This is great news, affirming our belief that Idaho schools are doing a good job of preparing students for post-high school success, even as compared to most other states,” state superintendent Sherri Ybarra said in her own news release.

But let’s put the ranking into context.

The SAT Day effect. The ranking could be related to state policies that emphasize college placement tests.

For years, Idaho has required high school students to take a college placement test in order to graduate. And for years, the state has allowed high school juniors to take the SAT during the regular school day and at no cost — with taxpayers footing a bill of about $1 million. Only a handful of states offer SAT Day, including other states in the West.

Does Idaho’s taxpayer-funded SAT Day have the effect of driving up Idaho’s “college-ready” percentage? Let’s walk through the math.

The U.S. News and World Report college-readiness number is based on the percentage of a state’s entire student body that hit the benchmark score. In Idaho, 55.2 percent of that entire student body hit the benchmark. But remember, every student was required to take a college placement test in the first place.

So here comes the math. In Idaho, close to 100 percent of students took the college-placement test, and 55 percent hit the benchmark. But in some hypothetical other state, let’s say 50 percent of the students took a college-placement test, and 90 percent of these students were deemed “college-ready.” That’s a great success rate. But only 45 percent of the state’s entire student body would hit the benchmark — and would fall behind Idaho in the U.S. News and World Report rankings.

Consider this: U.S. News and World Report ranked only four states ahead of Idaho on college readiness. Three of them also offer students a “free” SAT Day: Connecticut, Michigan and New Hampshire.

To sum it all up, nine states offered some version of an SAT Day in 2017, and Idaho’s college-readiness score came in fourth in that small group. It’s a solid performance. It’s just not as gaudy as the U.S. News and World Report ranking.

Karlynn Laraway, assessment and accountability director for Ybarra’s State Department of Education, doesn’t think SAT Day skews Idaho’s scores. She points out that Idaho students tend to score better when they take the SAT on their own time and nickel, during the normal Saturday testing dates.

“It is difficult to analyze SAT Test Day results and know if the scores are a reflection of aptitude or attitude of students – specifically for those students that are taking the assessment only to fulfill the graduation requirement,” she said Monday.

Idaho’s other rankings. Idaho’s high college-readiness marks also need to be considered against U.S. News and World Report’s other grades.

Idaho’s results were all over the map. Idaho did well for college affordability, both for sticker price and student loan debt. Idaho’s eighth-grade math and reading scores were also above the midpoint. Other rankings weren’t nearly as favorable.

  • Idaho’s high school graduation rate: ranked No. 40 nationally.
  • Idaho’s pre-K enrollment ranked No. 45.
  • Idaho’s four-year college graduation rate ranked No. 49, ahead of only Alaska.

Add it all up, and you get a predictably middle of the road set of rankings: No. 25 in the nation for K-12, No. 33 in the nation for higher education and No. 30 for education overall.

A snapshot in time. U.S. News and World Report’s college-ready rankings made news Thursday, when the magazine posted an article on them.

But the numbers are not new. They are based on 2017 test results. And Idaho’s scores dropped slightly during the 2018 SAT Day, and the percentages of students hitting benchmarks declined as well. SDE officials have said they want to dig into the 2018 scores to figure out what happened. The SDE is “eagerly awaiting” a national report on the 2018 scores, due sometime this fall, Laraway said.

A parting comment. The State Board had no additional comment for this analysis, deferring to Laraway.

Three days after touting the college-ready results, Idaho Republican Party spokeswoman Mary Strow emailed a terse response Monday morning.

“I figured it might be too good of news for Idaho for you guys to cover,” Strow said.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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