The good and bad news from fall reading scores

Idaho received some good news and some bad news with the recent release of the fall K-3rd Grade reading scores.

First the good news.

More students are reading at grade level this fall than in 2018. Forty-nine percent of 1st Grade students are reading at grade level, up 6 points; 63 percent of 2nd Graders, up 3 points; and 64 percent of 3rd Graders up from 61 percent last year.

Although we still have way too many students not reading proficiently, these numbers demonstrate that the investment our state has made in literacy is starting to pay off. It also shows that our educators are doing a good job moving the numbers in the right direction.

But that’s where the good news ends.

The bad news is that this fall 57 percent of our incoming kindergarten students were not prepared to learn how to read. If that news sounds darkly familiar it’s because last year 55 percent of our incoming kindergarteners were not prepared.

I don’t have the latest demographic breakdown, but last year 69 percent of our low-income students and 79 percent of our Hispanic students were not ready when they entered kindergarten. I suspect those numbers are similar or even worse this year.

Just a few years ago fewer than half of our students were not prepared for kindergarten. Now almost six out of 10. Clearly, our state is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to getting children ready for school.

So, what’s the difference between the good news and the bad news? Two words: money and commitment.

Our Idaho Reading Indicator scores for 1st-3rd Grades are showing promising improvement because three years ago the Legislature started investing in literacy, increasing the funding for reading from $2.3 million to more than $11 million.

This investment gave teachers a fighting chance to help their students read proficiently by 4th Grade when, as the saying goes, students are expected to know how to read so they can read to learn.

Almost miraculously, Governor Brad Little persuaded lawmakers to double the amount of money earmarked for literacy to $26 million during the last legislative session. With that investment many school districts are expanding to full-day kindergarten which research shows is one of the best ways to get students reading proficiently by 3rd Grade.

With this added infusion of money, we should expect to see our reading scores increase even more in the years ahead. But there are two danger signs that could prevent this success.

The first is the Legislature must at least re-appropriate the $26 million for literacy in the 2020 session, if not increase it. Yet having lawmakers do that is not a slam dunk and will require a lot of support from all of us to get the funding we need to continue making progress.

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Second, with 57 percent of our students not prepared to read when they enter kindergarten it could be increasingly difficult for our teachers to get the non-ready students up to grade level. And, with nearly six out of 10 students not ready to learn, it could even hinder their efforts to get the kindergarten-ready students prepared for 1st Grade.

Let’s come back to the root cause of our problem.

Idaho is one of only four states that doesn’t spend state dollars on preparing 4-year-olds for school. That despite research showing that investing in early education is the best return on investment we can make. That despite surveys showing Idahoans overwhelmingly support early education.

Last session the House Education Committee wouldn’t even introduce legislation that would create locally controlled, voluntary and only partially state funded early education programs. In fact, they interrupted the Republican sponsor’s testimony and then voted to kill the legislation.

Supporters of early education have given legislators their solution to help address this growing reading crisis among our youngest and most vulnerable children. Now we need to hear what solution the legislators have in mind.

Unless things change, don’t be surprised if next year six out of 10 of our kindergarteners are not ready for school. Now that would be really bad news indeed.

Written by Rod Gramer, President of Idaho Business for Education.

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