What the new reading scores say — and what they don’t say

Thirty percent of Idaho’s K-3 students left school this spring reading below grade level.

And that’s after reading scores improved significantly over the school year.

So, come fall, 25,720 students will return to school playing catchup. Their teachers will be scrambling to help these at-risk readers recall what they may have forgotten over the summer, and keep them from falling further behind.

This one statistic puts the state’s challenge into sharp focus — as Idaho doubles its investment in a campaign to improve early reading skills.

What the preliminary numbers say

The State Department of Education released — and hailed — preliminary spring reading scores on July 1.

And there was good news: Scores went up, across the board, from fall to spring.

“The preliminary results from this first year of the new, comprehensive Idaho Reading Indicator are promising,” state superintendent Sherri Ybarra said in a news release.

The improvements were considerable. In each grade, the number of students reading at grade level improved by at least 12 percentage points. In first grade, the improvement approached 24 percentage points.

Put another way, more than 14,500 students who scored below grade level on the fall IRI advanced to grade level by spring.

These improvements shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Reading scores went up significantly — year in and year out — under the old version of the IRI.

So this school year, a new test yielded some familiar results.

What the preliminary numbers don’t say

The SDE released only statewide spring numbers — and not even all the raw numbers. The department released the percentages of students reading at grade level, near grade level or below grade level.

That leaves a host of unanswered questions.

How do schools and districts compare? The state and its reading test vendor, Istation, released copious district- and school-level data from the fall test.

The spring data is important, and not just because the numbers allow parents and patrons to see how their local schools stack up. The numbers can offer a glimpse into what works for at-risk readers. For example, do schools with all-day kindergarten post larger improvements in reading scores?

Did demographic gaps increase or decrease? Again, the fall numbers offered a detailed data dive. A host of student groups lagged well behind the state averages: Hispanic students, American Indian students, economically disadvantaged students and students with limited English proficiency, among other groups.

These demographic gaps aren’t unique to this test, or to Idaho. The detailed spring numbers will give an early indication as to whether the new test is helping teachers and schools bridge demographic gaps.

What’s the trend over time? That’s tough to say.

From the beginning, SDE officials have cautioned against comparing this year’s scores with numbers from preceding years. They say this year’s new test — which assesses a variety of reading skills — is completely different than the previous test, which measured only reading speed.

The SDE predicted scores would drop on the new, more comprehensive test. That happened in the fall, and continued in the spring. Nearly 70 percent of K-3 students scored at grade level this spring. For the previous three years, this number hovered between 72 and 73 percent.

What happens next

Idaho Education News has submitted multiple requests for the school- and district-level spring IRI data.

The SDE says it has not received this data from Istation, a vendor that received $456,000 in state funding for the budget year that ended June 30.

The SDE said it will release the district- and school-level data by Aug. 15. But data releases do not always go according to plan. Originally, the SDE said it would release the fall 2018 scores in late October. Despite repeated records requests from Idaho Education News, the SDE did not release the fall results, with their predicted drop in scores, until three days after Ybarra’s reelection.

When the detailed spring numbers do come out, they will also be viewed in a political context.

Gov. Brad Little has made reading one of his top education priorities, and one of his top goals overall. He convinced the 2019 Legislature to double the budget for Idaho’s literacy initiative — which means schools will receive $26 million for programs geared for at-risk readers.

Continuing that theme, Little has told his “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” education task force to focus on just two themes: college and career readiness and literacy.

While lawmakers funded the $26 million literacy request, they are starting to clamor for results. Legislative budget-writers have asked for a study on the effectiveness of the reading initiative, due Feb. 1. In an initial study released in January, Boise State University’s Idaho Policy Institute said it was “extremely difficult” to gauge the effectiveness of the 2-year-old program.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.


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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