Analysis: Another thing we don’t know about Idaho’s young readers

(UPDATED, 9:37 a.m. Friday, with comments from the State Department of Education.)

Boise State University researchers have done a good job of summing up what we don’t know about Idaho’s reading initiative.

And they added one more unknown to the list.

Last spring, kindergarten scores were lower than the scores for first-, second- and third-graders. Only 64 percent of kindergartners ended the year with grade-level reading skills. That’s a new development. An unexplained development. And when it comes to Gov. Brad Little’s $26 million signature education program, it’s an important development.

In past years — and under an old version of the Idaho Reading Indicator — kindergartners fared relatively well on the spring test. There was a dropoff between kindergarten and first grade, as students were expected to pick up new reading skills.

That dropoff disappeared this year, but not in a good way. The dropoff disappeared because the kindergarten scores fell.

Now, here’s a critical disclaimer. In 2019, all kindergartners took a new version of the IRI.

“While the 2018-19 school year represents the third year of the Literacy Intervention Program’s existence, in many ways it must be treated as the first year of an entirely new intervention,” Boise State researchers said in their report, which the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee received earlier this month. “This is primarily due to the complete overhaul of the IRI testing instrument and testing process.”

So the news here isn’t how kindergartners did in 2019, compared to previous years. The news is that, in 2019, kindergartners didn’t do well.

How come?

Boise State researchers have no hard answers, but plenty of theories.

  • The new IRI tests kindergartners on a host of pre-reading skills: listening awareness, vocabulary, letter knowledge and phonemic awareness, the connection between spoken sounds and components of words. Unlike the old test, which concentrated on speed or fluency, the new IRI might offer a more complete and more troubling picture of where kindergartners stand.
  • Students take the new IRI on a computer or tablet — unlike the old IRI, which teachers administered on a one-on-one basis. The lower kindergarten scores might simply be a reflection of computing skills, not reading skills.
  • Or it could be an aberration. A fluke, basically.

“Without additional years of data to compare these results against, (we) cannot conclusively say which factor is at work,” Boise State researchers wrote.

At a glance, all three theories are plausible.

The new IRI is a more detailed test, so it stands to reason that it would arrive at an entirely different result. “It’s no surprise that the kindergarten proficiency trend noticed under the old IRI is different than in the new IRI, which assesses proficiency differently,” the State Department of Education said in a statement Friday. Fair point, which is why we go out of our way to not compare the scores on the two tests.

Last fall, when I was working on an in-depth series on the literacy initiative, parents and administrators alike brought up the shift to an online IRI. And that isn’t just an issue in rural Idaho. “It was a much bigger issue than we thought,” said Mary Ann Ranells, the superintendent of the West Ada School District, in an October interview.

And an aberration? In the absence of data over time, you can’t rule that out.

With only one year of scores from the new IRI, Little’s State Board of Education is taking a wait-and-see approach, spokesman Mike Keckler said.

The SDE is in wait-and-see mode, but finds the other spring numbers encouraging: proficiency rates of 67 percent in first grade, 76 percent in second grade and 74 percent in third grade.  “From our standpoint, the real interest lies in the progress made under the new IRI as students move from kindergarten to first, second and third grades. That, too, is too early to quantify midway through the assessment’s second year.”

Yet it’s important to remember that the state’s schools are spending a lot of new money to teach kindergartners to read.

School districts such as Kuna, Caldwell and Cascade are launching full-day kindergarten, using their share of money from the $26 million state literacy program. West Ada, the state’s largest school district, doesn’t have the classroom space to accommodate all-day kindergarten, so it instead offers an extended day for kindergartners who aren’t at grade level. It’s part of West Ada’s strategy of spending its $2 million of literacy money for interventions for at-risk readers in the earliest grades.

Little remains steadfast on the reading initiative. At every opportunity — including, for example, a breakfast question-and-answer session with Statehouse reporters Wednesday morning — he describes early literacy as the key to improving everything else in Idaho’s education system.

To date, lawmakers have been willing to invest in literacy. In the next few weeks, they’ll vote on Little’s $26 million budget request, replacing $3 million of one-time money with permanent funding.

At some point — probably sooner than later — they’ll expect answers about what’s happening in kindergarten.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

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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