Despite data showing otherwise, legislator says all students are ready for kindergarten

A Republican legislator, with a seat on the House Education Committee, urged fellow members of Gov. Brad Little’s education task force Monday to stop referencing data showing that Idaho children are not prepared for kindergarten.

Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, was speaking about the latest data from the Idaho Reading Indicator tests. Preliminary fall 2019 scores showed that 57 percent of Idaho kindergarten students did not hit grade-level benchmarks on the test. The percentage of kindergartners not reaching grade-level benchmarks is up from fall 2018, when 55 percent of kindergartners fell short of the benchmark.

“Over the summer I’ve heard a lot of talk about how 60 percent of kids are not ready for kindergarten,” Marshall said. “I would hope we could change that message and get back to a different concept and that is, I believe absolutely every child is ready for kindergarten.”

Marshall made his comments during the “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” task force meeting Monday at Boise State University.

The background and context is incredibly important.

  • All Idaho K-3 students take the IRI, a screener that shows whether they hit grade-level benchmarks and identifies gaps in student learning. Students take the test each fall and spring, with spring scores revealing growth during the school year.
  • Led by Little, the 2019 Legislature doubled funding for the state’s reading initiative to $26 million, after educators and Little sounded an alarm that IRI data showed too many of Idaho’s youngest students struggle with reading. Little and education leaders say early reading skills are foundational to a student’s academic career.
  • Little asked his task force, of which Marshall is a member, to develop recommendations focusing on improving literacy and college and career readiness.
  • The task force has endorsed and bought into the IRI, recommending using the test as the basis for a proposed new school accountability system focused on literacy.
  • For years, the Republican-controlled Legislature has resisted efforts to launch state-funded preschool and early childhood education, arguing that the family and the home are the best places to prepare children for reading and school. Idaho is one of four states nationally that does not offer state-funded preschool.
  • On Monday, Marshall voted against a task force recommendation to expand optional all-day kindergarten across Idaho, saying the evidence is not clear that all-day kindergarten is effective. The recommendation passed over the opposition of Marshall and Reps. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and Jason Monks, R-Nampa. Task force member and St. Maries school board member Jody Hendrickx disagreed, saying all-day kindergarten is important to help combat summer learning loss so students don’t show up to first grade behind as well.

In making his remarks Monday, Marshall was attempting to warn task force members of what he sees as a slippery slope.

Rep. Gary Marshall, pictured at left, is a member of Gov. Brad Little’s K-12 education task force.

“If you look at the long-term implications of that, then you’re pretty sure 60 percent of kids aren’t ready to be 4-year-olds or be in pre-k and it just keeps going on down,” Marshall said. “The real answer is all kids are ready for kindergarten. We have to take them where they are at and do our very best.”

Marshall was obviously trying to be positive and point out that educators need to teach and help all students, regardless of the reading skills they possess when they show up to school.

But the fact remains that data that has been endorsed by Little, the State Department of Education, numerous school district administrators and other experts show that all students are not prepared for kindergarten and have gaps in reading skills, despite Marshall’s insistence to the contrary.

During Monday’s discussion, retired Nampa school administrator and former deputy superintendent of public instruction Pete Koehler told the task force how he feels about the belief that the home is the best place for students to learn to read.

Bottom line, Koehler said, is that some students show up unprepared for school.

“We have got a lot of loving parents who have no idea how to teach a child to read, and so that is very important,” Koehler said.

This isn’t the first time that a House Education member has questioned IRI data showing gaps in reading skills. During two days of informational meetings last week at the Statehouse, Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, asked state officials why she kept hearing news reports saying students were unprepared for kindergarten, and questioned whether the narrative “was just anecdotal.”

Nampa district Superintendent Paula Kellerer and Caldwell district Superintendent Shalene French each cited fall IRI data as evidence that a concerning number of students are showing up to kindergarten without the reading skills they need.

“We believe if a child can start ahead, they can stay ahead in school,” said French, explaining why Caldwell invested its literacy initiative dollars in all-day kindergarten.

Lewiston district Superintendent Robert Donaldson also told House Education he invests in all-day kindergarten.

“It’s really impactful,” Donaldson said. “We have more time for reading instruction.”

Although he is just a first-term lawmaker, Marshall is an outspoken and influential member of House Education. He spent a career in education as a teacher and administrator, both at the K-12 level and at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

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