TWIN FALLS — Despite an influx of state money, some south-central Idaho school districts saw a year-to-year drop in the percentage of students reading at grade level.

That’s reflected in scores on the Idaho Reading Indicator, an early reading test for kindergarten through third-graders. The Idaho State Department of Education released numbers last week for the 2016-17 school year.

Educators say ensuring children are reading at grade level is crucial. Research shows if students aren’t by third grade, they’re likely to fall behind and have a higher risk of becoming high school dropouts.

But the percentage of K-3 students who scored at benchmark dropped in about half of local school districts this spring, compared with spring 2016. That includes Twin Falls, Cassia County, Minidoka County, Filer, Gooding, Wendell, Shoshone and Xavier Charter School in Twin Falls.

“Really, I feel like we did have a little dip in some of our scores,” said Teresa Jones, elementary programs director for the Twin Falls School District.

Other local school districts, though, including Jerome, Buhl, Blaine County, Hagerman, Kimberly, Hansen, Murtaugh and Valley, showed gains.

And overall across Idaho, more students are reading at grade level. By spring, 73 percent were at the benchmark — up from 71.9 percent in spring 2016.

Last year, state legislators appropriated $9.1 million for a new literacy initiative to help elementary schoolers who score below grade level on the IRI.

It’s up to individual school districts how they spend the money.

Students who score “basic” must receive an extra 30 hours of reading help, while those who score “below basic” must receive 60 extra hours. School officials must also contact parents if their child isn’t reading at grade level.

Kindergartners who test “below basic” can’t name three letters of the alphabet in one minute.

In Cassia County, factors behind the overall percentage drop could include the particular group of students or a “summer slide” in learning that contributes to fall scores, assistant superintendent Sandra Miller said.

There’s generally pretty good growth from fall to spring, she said, but “we would like to see greater ability from spring to spring.”

Cassia County schools have also seen employee turnover and retirements. “Those are all factors that could contribute to it, but ultimately, there is no excuse for us,” Miller said.

A committee is reviewing options for a new English/language arts curriculum for kindergarten through sixth grades that’s better aligned with Common Core Standards.

The school board will likely make a final decision by April 2018 and new materials will be used for the 2018-19 school year.

In the Twin Falls School District, 56 percent of students were reading at grade level in fall 2016, slightly fewer than the previous year. By spring, 74.2 percent were at grade level, down from 77.9 percent in spring 2016.

A bright spot: There was 18 percent growth in the number of students reading at grade level between fall and spring.

Factors behind the overall drop, though, could include new school attendance zones, shifting employees among schools and opening two new elementary schools, Jones said.

Last school year, the Twin Falls School District received about $370,000 in state literacy money. It was used for literacy training for teachers and a digital intervention program for students.

Jones said she feels the district wrote an excellent plan to improve literacy and expects to see scores increase over time.

Teachers will implement what they learned during training, she said. And new reading intervention materials — which didn’t arrive until part-way through last school year — will be used all year.

The district also wants to provide full-day kindergarten at some schools for students who need extra help with reading.

All-day kindergarten and new reading materials

There’s a common theme for the Hansen School District and Heritage Academy in Jerome, which both did well on the IRI.

They have all-day kindergarten and implemented new elementary school reading materials last school year.

Out of all south-central Idaho school districts, Hansen had the highest percentage — 82.7 percent — of its student body reading grade level this spring.

But in a small school district like Hansen, with about 400 total students, a handful of students who make gains can have a larger impact on the overall percentage.

Other school districts saw huge improvements in reading proficiency within last school year. One example: Heritage Academy, a charter school.

In fall 2016, only 27.3 percent of its students were reading at grade level. But by spring, that grew to 62.2 percent.

In Hansen, the school district used most of its state literacy money last year to keep all-day kindergarten.

Before that, the district paid for it using its general fund.

“We had to give up some other things to make that work, but we always thought that was really important,” Superintendent Kristin Beck said.

Another factor behind Hansen’s success was a new reading curriculum, Journeys, adopted last school year. “That had a huge impact,” Beck said.

In Jerome, Heritage Academy also has full-day kindergarten.

Many students enter school without many pre-reading skills, Superintendent Christine Ivie said. “That all-day kindergarten gives extra time in the afternoon to have more eyes to text. I think that’s a critical thing.”

Last school year, Heritage Academy also adopted a new reading program, Core Knowledge Language Arts.

Plus, the school spends more time with students on reading and extra help, and monitors students’ progress each month.

New reading test

Soon, Idaho public schools will transition to a new reading test: a computer-based assessment from Istation.

The Idaho State Department of Education chose 57 schools to pilot the test next school year. About 10,500 students in participating schools will take both the new and old reading tests.

Here in the Magic Valley, that includes Popplewell Elementary School in Buhl, Castleford Elementary School, Filer Elementary School, Hollister Elementary School, Horizon and Jefferson elementary schools in Jerome, Shoshone Elementary School and Wendell Elementary School.

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