Reading achievement gaps linger, but some narrow slightly

Students in several demographic groups gained a little bit of ground this year on Idaho’s reading test.

But for other student groups, the chronic “achievement gaps” only grew wider.

Just like the Idaho Reading Indicator scores, released by the State Department of Education last week, those achievement gaps are critical. Gov. Brad Little and the Legislature are spending a record $26 million this year on programs to help at-risk readers, particularly in schools and communities where students are struggling.

Those struggles remain considerable.

Based on scores on the IRI — a short online assessment designed to measure several reading and pre-reading skills — nearly 70 percent of Idaho’s kindergarten through third-grade students were at grade level this spring. But some demographic groups continue to lag well below the statewide average. Barely 60 percent of economically disadvantaged students read at grade level, for example, while 54 percent of Hispanic students were reading at grade level.

The improvement rates — student growth from the fall IRI to the spring test — were a mixed bag.

Scores for all student demographics improved, and some of these improvements outpaced Idaho’s overall student population. Achievement gaps narrowed for Hispanic and economically disadvantaged student populations — and also narrowed, albeit modestly, for American Indian and Alaskan Native students, students with limited English proficiency and homeless students.

For other student demographics — migrant students, African American students and students with disabilities — their improved scores did not keep up with the overall student population. In other words, their student achievement gaps grew larger during the course of the school year.

The Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs has urged the State Board of Education, legislators and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra to address the achievement gap. As a result, the new numbers are disappointing, said Juan J. Saldana, the commission’s community resource development specialist.

“This gap has been around for many years,” he said Monday. “We are lagging behind and we want to find a solution to this issue.”

State Board President Debbie Critchfield acknowledged that there is still work to do.

“Closing achievement gaps is a top priority and a focus of much of our board work, particularly for our more vulnerable students,” she said. “Our students and their families are counting on us to develop strategies that will work to close these gaps for all students.”

Little has made early literacy one of his top policy and spending priorities. Earlier this year, Little convinced the Legislature to double the budget for the literacy initiative. He has asked his K-12 education task force, Our Kids, Idaho’s Future, to focus its recommendations on literacy and college and career readiness.

“These IRI scores, and the identified achievement gaps in particular, offer clear baseline data that state and local leaders can use to focus their efforts in improving K-3 literacy,” said Greg Wilson, Little’s education adviser. “With the additional funding and the task force’s focus on improving IRI scores, we are hopeful we can continue to show meaningful progress that tells a very positive story of literacy growth in the next three to five years.”

Ybarra did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

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