Kindergarten reading scores hit an 11-year low

Barely half of kindergartners showed up to school this fall reading at grade level.

The statewide scores aren’t final — but they are troubling.

Only 50.1 percent of kindergartners scored at grade level on the Idaho Reading Indicator, according to the State Department of Education. If the scores hold, they will be the lowest since 2006-07, and mark the sixth consecutive drop in fall kindergarten scores.

The scores confirm what SDE officials are hearing from local teachers and administrators.

“They’re very concerned about the readiness and skills of students,” said Karlynn Laraway, the SDE’s assessment director.

The fall IRI is a short test that measures a kindergartner’s ability to recognize letters. Because the test is given early in the school year, the scores say little about kindergarten itself. Instead, they measure reading readiness: How prepared are kindergartners to learn to read?

The kindergarten scores might reflect a shortage of early childhood education — a perennial debate in Idaho, one of only a few states that does not fund pre-kindergarten. The scores might also reflect a home environment, and whether parents and caregivers introduce children to reading.

“That’s a really tough thing to nail down,” Laraway said Monday.

Idaho is in the second year of a “literacy initiative,” designed to provide 30 to 60 hours of extra help to at-risk readers from kindergarten through third grade. The state will put $11.4 million into the program in 2017-18.

Reading scores improved slightly in 2016-17, the first year of the initiative. However, rural districts appeared to lag behind their urban counterparts, and many scores fell short of the goals districts and charter schools set at the start of the year.

While kindergarten scores are sliding downward, third-grade scores are improving.

This year, 65.8 percent of third-graders scored at grade level, the highest fall score in more than a decade.

Meanwhile, “summer melt” appears to be a continuing issue, even as the state spends money to provide struggling readers extra help during the school year. The IRI scores suggest some students still forget the reading skills they picked up the preceding year.

In the spring of 2017, 80.3 percent of kindergartners scored at grade level; this fall, only 63.3 percent of first-graders scored at grade level. This 17 percentage point drop mirrors the five-year average from 2012-16.

This year’s dropoff from first to second grade was 13 percentage points, and the second- to third-grade dropoff was 4.1 percentage points. Both of these numbers are lower than the five-year average from 2012-16.

However, it’s not easy to compare spring-to-fall scores — and the scores might not necessarily reflect “summer melt.” For example, kindergartners are expected to identify 30 letter sounds in order to hit grade level on the spring IRI; in the fall, first-graders are expected to identify 31 sounds. In other words, kindergartners can retain everything they learned through the summer, and not hit grade level on the first-grade fall test.

The fall statewide scores are an aggregate. They take in kindergarten students just entering the state’s K-12 system. They also take in all first- through third-grade students — not just students who received extra reading help the preceding year.

And, as Laraway points out, Idaho is only one year into the literacy initiative.

“Systemic change takes time,” she said.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.

More reading: “Reading Revisited,” an in-depth Idaho Education News-Idaho Public Television series on the literacy initiative.

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