State says test results are mixed; but data shows mostly losses

Two of the most significant measures of academic achievement show Idaho students backslid over the past school year, according to data displayed on a State Department of Education webpage

But a Tuesday afternoon SDE news release highlighted gains and explained away losses in the Idaho Reading Indicator and the Idaho Standards Achievement Test. The news release did not include data for review or verification. Idaho Education News was sent to hours after receiving the news release, and Scott Graf, communications director for the SDE, told EdNews the full data would be provided Wednesday. 

In the news release, state superintendent Debbie Critchfield characterized the early literacy results as “generally positive.”

But Idaho K-3 students dropped in reading proficiency to 66.6% on the spring test from the previous year’s 69.1%.

The news release — in its first sentence — also reported that Idaho students are “outperforming their national peers in early literacy” but the SDE did not provide data to support that claim. Graf told EdNews that the information came from a report from Istation, the state’s IRI vendor. The report was not made available Tuesday; EdNews has filed a public records request for it. Idaho’s early literacy test and its measures of proficiency are specific to Idaho, making it difficult — or even impossible — to compare nationally.

On the ISAT, results dropped to 52.2% on the English language arts portion of the test from 55.5% in 2022 — the lowest proficiency level since 2017. Math also saw a drop in results (see yearly comparisons below).

“One of our priorities is to ensure that the time and energy that goes into these assessments yields an accurate representation of what our students are learning and where we as educators can focus additional support for our students,” said Chief Deputy Superintendent Ryan Cantrell.

IRI scores dropped — but the SDE says that’s because of norm changes

Overall, students regressed on the Idaho Reading Indicator from last spring, and by grade level, only kindergarteners improved.

The initial 2023 data “shows a drop in numerical scores compared to previous years,” Cantrell said. “This dip is due to the assessment vendor, Istation, applying new data norms to proficiency scales in 2023.”

Each spring and fall, Idaho students in kindergarten through third grade take the Idaho Reading Indicator (IRI). The assessment is used to gauge how well Idaho students are reading.

Without initially providing the scores to back up its claim, the SDE said that — when using the previous norms — kindergartners, second graders, and third graders showed improvement from 2022 and 2021. The SDE later provided grade-level data by referring EdNews to 

That data shows that only kindergartners improved from 2022, and only kindergartners and first graders improved from 2021.

These scores come after a months-long delay due to an algorithm problem that produced inaccurate results.

The SDE news release emphasized Critchfield’s efforts to improve early literacy since taking office in January, such as implementing monthly book studies on the science of reading and requesting funds for a state early literacy coordinator.

“I’m encouraged by the increased focus we’re placing on making sure more Idaho students are solid readers early in their academic careers,” Critchfield said. “Reading is central to a student’s success and we’re doubling our efforts to make literacy a hallmark of what we do.”

IRI scores

The percentages below reflect the students who scored proficient or higher. Percentages are in red when they represent a regression from the previous year.

Spring proficiency, overall

2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
69.7 NA 65.9% 69.1% 66.6%*

Spring proficiency by grade level

2019 2021 2022 2023
Kindergarten 63.1% 61.3% 64.8% 66.5%
First 66.7% 59.5% 63.7% 63.2%
Second 75.3% 69.2% 72.4% 66.9%
Third 73.2% 70.1% 71.7% 69.6%

ISAT scores fall in both ELA and math — SDE blames longer test

Students’ scores on the English language arts and math portions of the test were “lower than what we saw in 2021 and 2022 when our students were showing improvement coming out of the pandemic,” Cantrell said. 

Both the ELA and math results were well below target scores, and the ELA scores are the lowest they’ve been since 2017.

Cantrell said the regressions “may be due to” students taking a longer test in 2023 than in previous years: “In some instances, very young students were taking tests for long periods more appropriate for high school and college students. This can lead to lower scores based on testing fatigue.”

This year’s ISAT required students to respond to twice as many sections in the ELA and required “significantly more time to complete.” The shorter ISAT will be administered again in 2024, according to the press release. 

ISAT Scores

The percentages below reflect the students who scored proficient or higher. Percentages are in red when they represent a regression from the previous year.

Subject 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023
ELA 53% 52% 53.7% 55% NA 54.5% 55.5% 52.2% (target: 68.7%)
Math 41.4% 41.7% 43.6% 44.4% NA 40.3% 42.7% 41.5% (target: 61.1%)
Science NA NA NA NA NA NA 41.4% 41.6%
The ISAT assesses how well Idaho students are performing in math, science and reading and is given to students in various grades each spring.

Other than the overall scores listed in the tables above, the SDE provided data for four districts or charters that notably improved. No other district or school-specific data was made available. 

  • Rockland School District increased ELA scores by 16% to reach 78% proficiency district-wide.
  • West Ada School District increased its math ISAT proficiency by 2%.
  • Syringa Charter School increased its math proficiency scores by 13% to 70%.
  • Cascade School District increased its science proficiency scores by 38%.

“Idaho State Department of Education staff will be working with these and other successful Idaho schools to better understand what strategies and instructional methods led to improvement on this year’s assessment so they can be replicated statewide,” the release said. 

When the complete IRI and ISAT data is provided, EdNews will provide further coverage and the full results. 

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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