Revamping the IRI: Stakeholders chime in on state reading test

Idaho’s early literacy exam may be headed for an overhaul. 

It would be the first major change to the exam, which students in grades K-3 take each fall and spring, since 2016 when the Idaho Department of Education entered a contract with the vendor Istation. 

But that contract expires in June. What the next iteration of the exam looks like is partly up to the public — the IDE is seeking feedback on the Idaho Reading Indicator until Dec. 22. 

The exam results have major implications on kids, teachers and tax dollars. The results are used to: 

  • Measure a student’s reading abilities
  • Measure academic growth
  • Match students with the support and instruction they need
  • Make education policy decisions
  • Hold accountable schools and teachers
  • Pass out state funding for literacy initiatives (half of the state’s early literacy money is contingent on scores)

This school year, taxpayers will foot a bill of about $724,000 for the exam and related Istation services. The quality of what they’re getting for their money depends on who’s asked. 

EdNews reached out to a few stakeholders across the state who frequently work with Istation products — the tests or practice tests. They shared their critiques and praises, and what they want to see in the future. 

Istation fluctuations and inaccuracies drive teacher to rely on her own assessments

Jolynn Aldinger, a first-grade teacher at West Ada’s Galileo STEM Academy, said she’s noticed some fluctuations and inaccuracies in test results. 

What she knows of a student’s ability, according to her own in-class assessments and knowledge of the student, is sometimes not reflected in test results — Istation tests might show a student as “on grade level” when she knows that individual is actually behind. 

Her students take Istation practice tests each month, and sometimes the results are wildly different. One month, a student might do really well. The next month, that student’s scores might plummet — which doesn’t match what Aldinger sees in the classroom. 

“I basically use the assessments that I give in my classroom to truly monitor their growth and their improvement, or their struggles,” she said. 

Her assessments are paper and pencil, and are based on concepts taught by the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education, which trains teachers in targeted interventions and core reading strategies that focus on phonemic awareness and decoding words.

Another difference: the Istation assessments are on the computer. A computerized voice asks students questions, and Aldinger said it can be hard for students to understand. 

Plus, the voice instructs students to “Do your best and go as fast as you can,” Aldinger said. When students hear that, they race through the test. 

“There’s some glitches, so I think it could be made better,” she said. “I don’t know a teacher that really loves it.”

And accuracy is important — a student’s performance on an Istation test could mean the difference between getting early intervention and academic help, or not. 

Ultimately, it’s all about helping students read: “When you’ve given kids the gift of literacy, you’ve given them the opportunity to succeed no matter what their life circumstance is,” Aldinger said. 

Istation tests offer plenty of data and measure reading, but also reflect “social status”

Melissa Langan, chief academic officer for Caldwell School District, said she appreciates the amount of information the monthly Istation assessments create, as well as the ability to quickly access that information. 

“Not only are building administrators able to see real-time data, but I’m able to see it as well,” she said. 

Langan did wish Istation offered ways for students to monitor their own learning progress.  

Tennille Call, the education director for United Way of Southeastern Idaho, is a former kindergarten teacher and has a child currently in kindergarten. 

The text is more comprehensive than it used to be, and provides teachers with more data, she said. 

But she noted that Istation exams not only test students on the English language, but also “on their ability to use a computer.”

Amy Wuest, United Way of Southeastern Idaho’s director of health and the parent of a pre-kindergarten student who is on the spectrum, said it’s worth noting that vulnerable student populations, like those with disabilities or who are learning English, are likely to struggle more on the exams. 

“To be measurable, they need to know how to hold the pencil and how to hold the mouse,” she said. “If you have a kid who has any form of disability or lack of access, that’s going to manifest in those scores … We’re not just measuring their competency, we’re measuring their social status.”

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Reporter Carly Flandro works in EdNews’ East Idaho bureau. A former high school English teacher, she writes about teaching, learning, diversity, and equity. You can follow Flandro on Twitter @idahoedcarly and send her news tips at [email protected].

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