Reading scores drop across the board

Two years into a multimillion-dollar program aimed at helping struggling students, Idaho reading scores dropped in 2017-18.

This spring, 72.4 percent of the state’s kindergarten through third-grade students were reading at grade level. A year ago, 73 percent of students read at grade level.

In essence, reading scores are up only slightly from 2016, when lawmakers and Gov. Butch Otter agreed to launch an $11.25 million “literacy initiative.” The initiative, and the money, is supposed to provide extra help for students who aren’t reading at grade level. While the test scores are stagnant, the cost of extra help is heading upward; the 2018-19 budget comes in at just under $13 million.

Announcing the latest round of scores late Friday afternoon, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra placed some of the blame on the test itself.

“Idaho teachers are making a great effort to give our youngest students the reading skills and confidence that are crucial to building a foundation for successful lifelong learning,” Ybarra said in a news release. “But the assessment they use to gauge students’ abilities at the beginning of the school year hasn’t been giving them the information they need to maximize students’ skills.”

The test in question, the Idaho Reading Indicator, is central to the literacy initiative. The state uses historic IRI scores to carve up money for the program. School districts and charter schools with higher numbers of at-risk readers receive a larger share of the money.

But many educators have long criticized the IRI, a short screening exam that the state has used, in some form, since the late 1990s. Among its shortcomings: The IRI measures only reading speed, not reading comprehension, and does not diagnose the cause of reading problems.

So on Friday, Ybarra’s State Department of Education used the release of the test scores as an occasion to tout a new version of the IRI ­— designed to provide teachers with more detailed student data. About 50 schools piloted the new test in 2016-17. And after considerable wrangling — and over the objections of several prominent lawmakers — the 2018 Legislature earmarked $550,000 for a statewide rollout of the new IRI.

But while Ybarra’s SDE expressed high hopes for the new IRI, the department tried to put this year’s results into perspective.

“Results are basically flat. They have been flat for a number of years,” said Karlynn Laraway, the SDE’s director of assessment and accountability. “It really speaks to the change in assessment, and the need for that change.”

In at least one case, the results weren’t even flat.

According to revised numbers released by the SDE, only 49.8 percent of kindergartners arrived at school last fall with the skills needed to learn to read. That’s the poorest performance since 2006-07, the oldest IRI scores posted on the state’s website. It also marks the only time in a dozen years that fewer than half of kindergartners arrived at school with grade-level reading scores.

By this spring, however, 79.9 percent of kindergartners read at grade level. Put another way, more than 6,200 kindergartners caught up over the course of the year, and improved to grade level.

The dropoffs, by the numbers

Reading scores fell across the board in 2017-18, from kindergarten through third grade. This table reflects the percentages of students scoring at grade level on the spring IRI.


Grade 2016 2017 2018
Kindergarten 78.3 80.3 79.9
First grade 68.1 67.3 66.9
Second grade 68.9 69.9 68.5
Third grade 73.0 74.9 74.6
Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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