Reading scores: 25,000 elementary students below grade level

Slightly more than 25,000 Idaho elementary school students were reading below grade level, according to statewide test scores from this spring.

As sobering as those numbers sound, they also represent a snapshot. In the fall of 2015, more than 36,000 students were not reading at grade level. At the end of the school year, two-thirds of these students remained below grade level. But over the course of the school year, teachers and schools helped 11,000 students pull their reading skills to grade level.

The scores on the Idaho Reading Indicator come as the state is focusing more attention — and taxpayer money — on early childhood literacy. The 2016 Legislature endorsed a $9.1 million literacy initiative, designed to provide extra help to kindergarten through third-grade students who are struggling with reading. The literacy initiative will launch during the 2016-17 school year.

The linchpin of the literacy plan is the IRI, a test administered in the fall, winter and spring. The extra help would go to students with IRI scores that are defined as “basic” (or near grade level) or “below basic” (or below grade level). School districts will have the latitude to figure out how to provide the extra help, and how to spend their share of the $9.1 million.

For purposes of the literacy initiative, however, the fall IRI scores are critical. These are the scores that will determine whether a student qualifies for extra help.

In the fall of 2015, only 59 percent of Idaho’s K-3 students were reading at grade level. That number was even lower in kindergarten, as only 52 percent of students started their education with grade-level reading skills.

The spring scores indicate how student reading skills developed over the 2015-16 school year — even without the literacy initiative in place. By spring, 72 percent of K-3 students read at grade level. For kindergartners, the improvement was even more dramatic; 78 percent of students read at grade level. In other words, schools and teachers helped close to 5,300 kindergartners bring their reading skills to grade level.

The literacy initiative will give teachers and principals some money to put into new reading programs. In general, superintendents and principals are hopeful, said Rob Winslow of the Idaho Association of School Administrators; resources for interventions should produce some results. But there’s no way to predict how a $9.1 million investment will change the numbers.

“I think we’ll see improvements, I just don’t know how much,” Winslow said.

While this spring’s scores reflect marked improvement from the start of the school year, they are down slightly from the previous spring. In 2015, 79 percent of kindergartners finished the year reading at grade level, compared to the 78 percent mark for 2016. The scores for third-graders also dropped; 74 percent of students read at grade level in 2015, compared to 73 percent this year. Overall, 72 percent of K-3 students finished 2015 reading at grade level, the same as 2016.