Officials brace for drop in reading scores with new test

There is no way to compare scores between Idaho’s new reading test and its old test, state officials say.

But officials are worried about perceptions — because they expect students to score lower on the first round of the new test.

“I think that’s going to be the biggest change that we’re going to see,” Karlynn Laraway, the State Department of Education’s director of assessment and accountability.

As students arrive for the start of the 2018-19 school year, the transition to the new test is fully under way. Kindergarten through third-grade students will take the fall reading test through the end of September. The state expects to release fall scores by the third week of October.

But schools and their teachers will have access to test data sooner than that. And according to state officials, this is one of the key advantages to the new version of the Idaho Reading Indicator.

Results from the new IRI will be available quickly, allowing teachers to adjust more quickly to their students’ strengths and weaknesses. And teachers will receive more detailed data from the new test.

For example, the old fall IRI only measured kindergartners’ ability to recognize letters. The new test will also measure vocabulary, listening comprehension and “phonemic awareness” — that is, the student’s ability to recognize the sounds that make up words.

Since the test measures a variety of skills, teachers will get a more complete picture of where their students stand.

But there’s a flip side. Students can receive grade-level scores — or below grade-level scores — in several areas. That means students are more likely to receive an overall score that comes in below grade level.

That’s why Laraway expects a dropoff in the fall scores — and cautions against drawing comparisons between the new IRI and its predecessor. In an interview last week, she said the SDE could not figure out a valid method to compare the results.

The comparisons might be inevitable, however, if only because of the recent trends and the timing of the new test.

Fall kindergarten scores have dropped for several years. A year ago, only 49.8 percent of kindergartners showed up with the skills they needed to learn to read. That’s the lowest performance in more than a decade — and possibly the first time that fewer than half of the state’s kindergartners were ready to learn to read.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is pumping millions of dollars into a “literacy initiative,” designed to earmark extra dollars to help at-risk readers. The cost of the plan is rising and will reach $13 million this year.

The SDE and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra believe the new test will give the state a better return on its investment, and provide at-risk readers with the help they need.

And so, after 13,000 students took a pilot version of the new test last year, the test is going statewide, to some 90,000 students.

Teachers generally gave the pilot test favorable marks, according to a Boise State University review requested by legislative budget-writers. Still, some concerns surfaced. Some teachers said they were concerned that the online test measured computer skills, not reading skills.

The SDE tried to address this issue during training this summer, urging teachers to allow students to practice on the test beforehand.

“But again, we can stress that in training,” Laraway said. “We cannot implement that in the schools.”

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