Schools prepare to test Idaho’s new reading test

This fall, Idaho students will try out a brand new reading test.

And for Shelby Randklev, the change couldn’t come soon enough.

“I am excited for this change,” said Randklev, a Title I reading specialist in the Coeur d’Alene School District. “It needed to happen.”

Randklev’s Fernan STEM Academy is one of 57 schools that will pilot the replacement to the Idaho Reading Indicator. The new test will go statewide in 2018-19.

As a result, educators around Idaho will watch the pilot testing closely — even if they aren’t taking part.

What is (or was) the IRI?

A 15- to 20-minute test, administered from kindergarten through third grade, the IRI provides a snapshot into students’ reading skills.

The test is short — but significant.

For kindergartners, the fall edition of the IRI is their first test. It provides teachers with an early baseline into their students’ skills.

The test isn’t new. The state has used the IRI, or some variation of it, since the late 1990s. But the IRI took on new importance in 2016, when the state launched a new literacy initiative to provide extra help for at-risk readers. The initiative came in response to a stubborn problem; each fall, some 36,000 K-3 students arrive at Idaho  schools with low reading skills.

With the initiative came money. And now, $11.25 million ride on the IRI scores. School districts and charter schools get their share of this money based on the number of K-3 students that score below grade level on the IRI.

The new test, then, will likely become the metric the state uses to carve up literacy dollars. It also will become the metric politicians and parents use to gauge the results of the literacy initiative.

Why change tests?

Educators have two major problems with the IRI.

First, the test identifies at-risk readers, but it doesn’t diagnose their problems.

Second, the test only measures fluency — the number of words a child can read per minute. It doesn’t measure comprehension.

Despite these shortcomings, the test has grown into something more than just an “indicator,” a way to identify at-risk readers. The IRI has become one of the metrics used to identify “failing” schools. “Teachers take it to heart,” said Tami Vandeventer, principal at Nampa’s Central Elementary School, another pilot school.

Vandeventer and other educators are also hoping to collect more complete data about their students — and their strengths and weaknesses.

An improved test ties directly into the Caldwell School District’s aggressive goals to bring up reading scores. Caldwell wants 85 percent of its third-graders reading at grade level, up from 52 percent in 2015-16. If a test provides better insight into student reading skills, teachers should be able to come up with a more effective intervention plan to help at-risk readers.

“Ultimately, that’s what our job is,” said Leigh Peebles, principal at Caldwell’s Lewis and Clark Elementary School.

Double-testing

For Peebles, piloting the new reading test presents an opportunity. Field-testing a new assessment will help students in Caldwell and throughout the state.

But for all the pilot schools, there’s a catch.

They still have to give their K-3 students the IRI, in addition to the new test. Administering two tests poses some logistical challenges.

Randklev says her Coeur d’Alene school is prepared. Individual proctors will administer the old IRI, while students will take the new test on computers and tablets. The Fernan academy is ready to deliver the new test online, but other school districts might not be as equipped. “More technology and funding for devices in the hands of all kids would be important and critical,” she said.

The Boise School District was uneasy about administering two reading tests — to all of its K-3 students — so the district didn’t apply for the pilot program. But the district will be watching closely, to make sure Boise students will be prepared to take the test on tablets or Chromebooks.

“We’d like to see how the new computer-based program works for students in pilot schools, and what infrastructure needs we can address this year so that we are prepared for the test rollout next year,” spokesman Dan Hollar said.

Watching and waiting

At least two large school districts wanted in on the State Department of Education pilot program, but didn’t get spots on the state’s list.

Since the Bonneville School District didn’t make the cut, the district hopes to send an observer to a nearby pilot school, said Michaelena Hix, Bonneville’s curriculum and instruction director.

The Twin Falls School District had hoped to capitalize on its relationship with Istation, the state’s Texas-based vendor for the new reading test.

Twin Falls is using Istation’s digital learning tools to provide before- and after-school help for struggling readers. The district was hoping to see how Istation’s test lined up with its digital learning tools, said Teresa Jones, the district’s elementary programs director.

Twin Falls also hopes to check in with a neighbor, the Jerome School District, which will pilot the new test at two elementary schools.

As for the long term, Jones shares in the optimism about a new reading test. As education becomes more data-driven, the state needs a test that goes beyond counting words read per minute.

“The more data we gather, the more helpful it is for teachers” she said.