Many young readers face hurdles tied to their economic or ethnic backgrounds.
Acknowledging this reality is one thing. Using it as an excuse is unacceptable, said Debbie Critchfield, the co-chair of a gubernatorial task force that spent much of the year looking at early reading issues.
“We can’t hang our hat on that we can’t get the job done because we can’t control the kids we get,” said Critchfield, a Cassia County School District spokeswoman who also serves as president of the State Board of Education. “To me, that’s a misplaced accountability.”
There is nothing new or surprising to Idaho’s achievement gaps in reading.
Students in poverty, English language learners, Hispanic and American Indian students lagged behind their kindergarten through third-grade classmates on this fall’s reading tests. These same demographic groups have struggled on various tests through high school, and on previous rounds of the Idaho Reading Indicator, to the disappointment of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
“This gap has been around for many years,” commission community resource development specialist Juan J. Saldana said this summer, after the state released 2018-19 IRI scores. “We are lagging behind and we want to find a solution to this issue.”
Nor is this a localized or isolated issue, affecting some high-poverty and diverse schools but not others. Consider the sprawling and suburban West Ada School District.
West Ada is the archetype of a thriving bedroom-community district. Student poverty rates are low, relative to the state average. The same goes for the number of English language learners.
But in 2018, West Ada ran the numbers on its IRI scores. Every K-3 student who scored below grade level — the lowest of three possible scores on the test — fell into three cohorts. They were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, were special-education students with an Individualized Education Program, or were students with limited English proficiency.
This year, 83 percent of West Ada’s most at-risk readers fell into one of these three student groups.
In response, the district focused reading interventions and expanded kindergarten hours in the schools with the highest needs and most challenging demographics.
“Once I have them at grade level, I can keep them there,” said Joe Kelly, West Ada’s assessments and accountability administrator. “We just kind of do what the data suggests could be effective.”
West Ada scored well above the state average on this spring’s reading test — and the district’s LEP and high-poverty students outperformed their peers statewide.
While some demographic hurdles are obvious, others are subtle.
Family mobility. In picturesque Valley County, Cascade looks the part of an idyllic, pastoral community. Newcomers show up to work in the recreational sector, but they don’t always stay.
“A lot of people think Cascade is a lovely place to live until the snow hits, and then they’re gone,” kindergarten teacher Crystal Rosen said.
And that means their children are gone too — sometimes, Rosen says, just as they’re making progress. “I guess that’s part of the heartbreak of teaching.”
This heartbreak is hardly unique to Cascade.
West Ada’s Chaparral Elementary School looks like a typical school in the subdivision sea of Meridian. But it isn’t. The neighborhood is aging. More homes are rentals. More students float in and out of the 25-year-old school. “This is usually not their first move,” first-grade teacher Katie Conway said.
For Conway and her colleagues, that means assessing newcomers’ skills quickly — and trying to get students the extra help they need, as quickly as possible.
Tardiness. Christine Ivie — administrator at Heritage Academy, a Jerome charter school — talks aloud about getting a van to get some students to school on time. Tardiness is a chronic challenge, directly connected to socioeconomics. Many Heritage parents juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet and scramble to get their kids out the door.
And at Heritage, the morning starts with core reading. In kindergarten, that means learning a new letter sound a day. Missing a couple of classes might sound trivial, but it can be a big deal for a young child getting ready to learn to read, said Kim Radford, a Heritage kindergarten teacher.
Connecting with kids. It is the essential magic of reading: A story can transport a young child to a place that stirs the imagination. But when children read about something outside their life experiences — such as walking along a beach or flying in an airplane —the story just doesn’t connect with them, said Heather Efaw, a literacy coach at Future Public School in Garden City.
Finding that connection can be complicated in a diverse school such as Future. More than half of Future’s 218 students live in poverty. Nearly four in 10 are students of color.
That need to connect is shaping the search for a new English language arts curriculum in the Boise School District. Boise wants to find reading materials that will resonate with its refugee students — 1,052 students from 57 different countries.
Helping students see themselves in a reading assignment goes to a bigger objective.
“The ultimate goal is for our kids to learn to read,” said R.T. Duke, Boise’s English language arts supervisor. “But truly the ultimate goal is we want our kids to love reading.”
Idaho’s reading challenge: This series at a glance
Idaho’s daunting demographic hurdles