Report: Idaho’s full-day kindergarteners outpace half-day students in reading

Idaho’s full-day kindergarteners are advancing their reading and writing skills faster than their peers in half-day programs, a new report shows.

The research, published Thursday by North Carolina-based education firm Public Impact and Idaho charter support group Bluum, found that the state’s full-day kindergarteners started last school year behind students in half-day programs, but closed the achievement gap over time — despite serving more students with educational challenges.

The results found one researcher calling for change in Idaho, where kindergarten remains optional and the state carves up enough funds for only half-day programs.

“Idaho should consider requiring districts to have full-day kindergarten and fund it,” said Public Impact researcher Bryan Hassel, who helped present the findings during a news briefing with Bluum Thursday.

Hassel and other researchers compared early reading scores from 185 full-day kindergartens and 162 half-day kindergartens. The scores were from the Idaho Reading Indicator, the state’s early reading test administered to K-3 students in the fall and again in the spring to measure growth.

One key finding: full-day kindergarteners entered school with lower literacy rates than their partial-day peers, but still caught up over time. Full-day kindergarteners started school with 2020 fall literacy rates at the 46th percentile on the test, but rose to the 52nd percentile by the spring of 2021. Half-day students dropped from the 54th to the 52nd percentile in that same timeframe.

Meanwhile, the reading and writing gap between all-day and partial-day students narrowed over multiple years, researchers found by tracking a cohort of 2018 kindergartners through their second-grade year. At the start of kindergarten, full-day students were reading 11 percentile points lower than half-day students. By spring of their kindergarten year, 66% of students from both programs were reading at grade level. A gap re-emerged in second grade, with former full-day kindergarteners ending the year reading five percentile points lower than the former half-day students. But the gap remained smaller than it started. (There was no data for spring 2020, when the students would have been in first grade, because of the pandemic.)

Full-day kindergarteners were also more likely than their half-day peers to have educational challenges. Between 2018 and 2021, about 40% were economically disadvantaged, 11% had special needs and 11% were English language learners. Those rates are all lower in the state’s half-day kindergartens, where 35% of students were economically disadvantaged, 10% had special needs and 5% were English language learners.

Hassel and Bluum CEO Terry Ryan explained why higher rates of students with special needs may have ended up in full-day programs. Working parents are more inclined to choose a full-day kindergarten, Hassel said. And school districts serving students with more needs get more literacy money, Ryan said. More money means a greater ability to run optional full-day kindergarten programs.

The report delivers findings about the nature of Idaho’s optional all-day kindergarten policy less than a month before lawmakers assemble for the 2022 legislative session — and just weeks after the state released data that showed kindergartners were the only youngsters who did not regain reading test score progress after early pandemic losses, as Idaho EdNews reported.

Top state leaders — including Gov. Brad little, state superintendent Sherri Ybarra and the State Board of Education — have advocated for full-day kindergarten ahead of the legislative session. But conservative lawmakers who prize parental choice have pushed back on a possible shift for years.

The State Board of Education helped support the research presented Thursday by sharing data for all Idaho public schools and asking researchers to analyze broader trends, according to Ryan.

Other facts about full-day kindergarteners:

  • Full-day programs served fewer students than half-day programs. In 2020-21, there were 19,043 Idaho kindergartners in half-day programs and 14,832 in full-day programs, according to the report.
  • Twenty-one states require school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Disclosure: Bluum and Idaho Education News are funded through grants form the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. 

Kyle Pfannenstiel

Kyle Pfannenstiel

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel covers the implementation of policy in Idaho’s K-12 public school system. He’s a military brat and former health care reporter who holds degrees in Journalism and Political Science from University of Idaho. Follow Kyle on Twitter @pfannyyy. He can be reached at [email protected].

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