Educators credit several factors for lifting reading scores

A range of factors fueled a recent rebound in early reading scores, several school leaders say, from all-day kindergarten programs and increased funds for reading to softened pandemic protocols on students and educators.

Fewer “distractions and precautions” from COVID-19 kept more students in class last school year — a driving force for the Rockland district, said superintendent Greg Larson.

Rockland was among the state’s highest performing districts on the spring 2022 Idaho Reading Indicator, a screener for kindergarten through third-grade students. Elementary students take the test in the fall and again in the spring to measure growth. Rockland led the statewide pack for growth during that timeframe last school year.

The statewide boost in scores follows a two-year pandemic struggle. Spring proficiency scores fell by a statewide average of 4.5 percentage points from 2019 to 2021, as school closures and shifts to online learning — and back again — plagued educators and students. Leaders put the IRI on hold in the spring of 2020, as schools went online during the onset of COVID-19.

Last school year’s fall-to-spring increase underscores a typical phenomenon: most elementary students improve in reading during the school year, and IRI numbers typically reflect it. But last school year’s increases nearly restored spring scores to pre-pandemic levels. Like Rockland, most Idaho districts and charters posted double-digit gains from fall to spring.

The latest numbers show some correlation with all-day kindergarten programs, which have been popping up more and more across the state in recent years. But when asked what happened last school year, several local leaders pointed to a mix of factors.

EdNews broke down the latest increases and asked leaders at schools with the biggest jumps what fueled them. Here’s a look at who saw the biggest gains, and what some local leaders had to say:

Most districts and charters saw big gains last school year

In all, 130 of 155 districts and charters saw reading proficiency percentages increase by at least 10 percentage points from fall to spring last school year.

The top 10 growers saw jumps of over 30 percentage points.

Here’s the Top 10, along with their enrollments and their percentage-point increases from fall to spring:

  • Rockland (178 students): 37.7%
  • Cottonwood (435 students): 37.7%
  • Soda Springs (927 students): 35.7%
  • Boundary County (1,436 students): 35.4%
  • Culdesac (129 students): 33.2%
  • Troy: (297 students): 32.7%
  • Heritage Community Charter (496 students): 32.6%
  • Aberdeen (698 students): 31.5%
  • Council (328 students): 32.4%
  • Camas County (179 students): 31.2%

Click here for a look at IRI growth in all districts and charters last school year.

Several factors fueled increased scores

Rockland, a remote district in southeast Idaho, had just 45 students take the IRI in the spring — another factor that may have fueled its hefty upward swing there, since smaller sample sizes of students are more likely to see dramatic impacts on average scores than larger ones.

Still, superintendent Larson credited several factors for last school year’s unprecedented improvement, from state literacy training for teachers to more targeted funds.

And for Rockland, extra funds have come in varied forms.

In March, lawmakers put $72 million into the state’s literacy program, a one-year, $46 million increase. Schools can use the money to launch or maintain all-day kindergarten programs, but they don’t have to. They can also hire reading coaches, start summer programs, or take other targeted approaches.

But the state’s latest infusion of literacy dollars came just weeks before 90,682 of Idaho’s K-3 students took the IRI in the spring. Larson credited a local influx of funds for improvements in his district.

“Additional help for early literacy has been the focus of our supplemental levy each year,” he told EdNews, adding the district also sent two of its elementary teachers to a state training on literacy instruction. “I saw improved instruction and noticeable student progress compared to previous years in those classrooms.”

Soda Springs’ Thirkill Elementary principal Rod Worthington acknowledged added funding from the state, but pointed first to schoolwide intervention program for struggling readers. The process allowed teachers to work with students “week by week and month by month, one student at a time” last school year. The school also carved out more time for teachers to meet and plan for “best strategies” for helping each struggling student. Increased literacy funds from the state helped the district hire additional staff focused on individual needs of each student, Worthington added.

Boundary County Superintendent Jan Bayer said her district’s success started with “lofty reading goals in our continuous improvement plan,” but she also pointed to several other factors:

  • Full-day kindergarten in the district, which operates on a four-day school week.
  • A new reading intervention purchased with an infusion of federal funds that includes an “interactive online instructional component” for learners.
  • More professional development for teachers and paraprofessionals aimed at allowing them to “leverage increased literacy dollars” to continue the district’s full-day kindergarten offering.

Superintendents from the Cottonwood and Culdesac school districts did not respond to questions about an uptick in their scores.

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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