Fall IRI scores: Nearly 35,000 students score below grade level

As Idaho embarks on a new multimillion dollar attempt to help at-risk readers, recent test results tell an old story.

Once again, more than four in 10 kindergarten through third-grade students showed up for fall classes reading below grade level. This translates to 34,949 students statewide.

The latest Idaho Reading Indicator scores are not a reflection on the state’s new literacy initiative, passed by the 2016 Legislature. School districts and charter schools submitted their literacy plans to the state this fall, and received their share of the $11.25 million in state funding in October — after students took the fall IRI.

Instead, the fall IRI scores provide a mile marker at the launch of the literacy initiative.

The numbers are essentially flat.

Only 51 percent of kindergartners began their school year with grade-level reading skills, down from 52 percent in 2015. Scores improve in the higher grades; 64 percent of third-graders scored at grade level, mirroring scores from fall 2015.

The IRI is a 15- to 20-minute screening exam for kindergarten through third-grade students. The test doesn’t diagnose the cause of reading problems; instead, it is designed to help teachers identify at-risk readers.

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Consequently, IRI scores tend to improve significantly during the course of the year. Only 59 percent of students scored at grade level on the fall 2015 IRI; by spring 2016, this number had improved to 72 percent. However, this still left some 25,000 students reading below grade level.

Gov. Butch Otter and the Legislature are hoping for better results in the future.

They passed a literacy initiative designed to provide extra help for at-risk readers — and extra money for schools and charters. They put $11.25 million into the program in 2016-17, carving up the money based on the previous three years of fall IRI scores. Schools are supposed to use the money to provide 30 to 60 hours of instruction to students who aren’t reading at grade level. However, districts and charters can use the money for any number of purposes: from all-day kindergarten and summer programs to hiring or training teachers or upgrading classroom technology.

When the Legislature reconvenes in January, lawmakers will have to decide whether to continue funding the literacy initiative — and they’ll have to make that decision without access to spring IRI scores, or any hard evidence on whether the new literacy efforts are making a difference.

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra is recommending a $7.9 million increase in literacy spending for 2017-18, including $5.9 million to revamp or replace the IRI. Otter will release his budget proposal in January.

More details: Click here to access the State Department of Education’s IRI page, and look at scores by district or school.

Coming next week: Idaho Education News and Idaho Public Television’s “Idaho Reports” team up to take a closer look at the state’s literacy initiative.