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News >  ID Government

Lawmakers put early-reading test back into Idaho state budget

March 20, 2018 Updated Tue., March 20, 2018 at 9:50 p.m.

The Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee meets on Tuesday morning, March 20, 2018. At top center are its co-chairs, Sen. Shawn Keough and Rep. Maxine Bell. At lower left is Pete Koehler, chief deputy state superintendent of schools. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)
The Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee meets on Tuesday morning, March 20, 2018. At top center are its co-chairs, Sen. Shawn Keough and Rep. Maxine Bell. At lower left is Pete Koehler, chief deputy state superintendent of schools. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers have come up with a new budget for the state superintendent of schools that includes the statewide rollout next year of a new version of the state’s reading assessment test for kindergartners through third-graders – which had been left out of the previous version of the budget bill.

The House killed the previous one amid concern over the lack of funding for the new statewide test. While House Education Chair Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, introduced a bill last week to just let school districts contract for whatever reading test they want, it was quickly withdrawn.

The new version of the Idaho Reading Indicator is being tested in a pilot project this year at more than 50 Idaho schools in districts across the state, including Coeur d’Alene.

“My district really likes the current pilot program and wants to roll it out to all of our schools,” said Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene.

The new budget was approved on a 16-3 vote in the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. It still needs passage in both houses and the governor’s signature to become law, but budgets rarely change once they’re set by the joint committee.

The three “no” votes were from Senate Education Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls; Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield; and Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot. All North Idaho members of the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted in favor of the budget plan, which was crafted by the panel’s co-chairs, Reps. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, and Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint.

Mortimer spoke passionately about his concerns about the test, which assesses Idaho kindergartners through third-graders, fall and spring, to determine how well they’re reading. The goal is to get all students reading at grade level by the end of the third grade, which is seen as a key indicator for success later in school. More than $11 million in reading remediation funding is distributed to school districts based on the results of the test.

The new version of the test, for which the state Department of Education contracted last year with Dallas-based vendor Istation, is computer-based, and tests an array of specific reading skills beyond simple reading fluency – the focus of Idaho’s current, 20-year-old Idaho Reading Indicator test, which simply evaluates students on how well they read a passage.

Mortimer said his conclusion was that Idaho shouldn’t just look to a statewide, computerized test, but should also involve the teachers and reading specialists who interact directly with the young students to determine how well they’re reading. “What role does our teacher, reading specialist and others have in it? It is not addressed,” Mortimer said. “We’re simply saying take a technology-based assessment, and that’s what we’re going to use to measure statewide. I don’t believe that’s where we need to be.”

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, a longtime teacher, said, “I really appreciate all the good work that’s gone into looking at this assessment and how teachers approach readers.” But she said that teachers use multiple forms of assessment “on a daily basis” in the classroom. “The Idaho Reading Indicator is an important tool, but it’s only one tool,” she said.

Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, said, “I really compliment Sen. Mortimer for his extensive work on this and the passion with which he approaches this question. However, I think sometimes we get really mired down … with these decisions.”

Crabtree noted that current state law calls for a single statewide early-reading assessment test specified by the state Board of Education. “That is the law we’re operating under now. We have no other direction,” Crabtree said.

“Secondly, in April 2016 we entered into a five-year contract,” he said. “There have been no egregious violations by them, we are in contract with them, and we need to honor commitments, because if we don’t, other contractors won’t want to do business with us as a state.”

Pete Koehler, chief deputy to state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra, told the committee that the contract is structured so that it’s dependent on funding allocated by the Legislature each year; and if lawmakers didn’t allocate funds, it would end. But the contract’s second year calls for the new test to replace the current IRI statewide.

The five-year contract started with this year’s pilot project, at $100,000. Next year, the test will roll out statewide at a cost of $466,000. The state superintendent requested the full funding, plus some training and administrative funds, for a total of $600,000 next year. The newly approved budget set by JFAC sets the figure at $550,000.

“I do have faith that there are professionals in the superintendent of public instruction’s shop, and I do know that they care about getting these third-graders to read and know how to read,” Bell said. “I also know one thing that’s pretty much boilerplate for me: I need a budget. I need to provide a budget, and I need one that I can have the votes for.”

Ybarra said in a statement that she’s “thrilled” with the new budget.

“We continue hearing overwhelmingly positive feedback from teachers in the schools piloting the new test this year,” she said. “This is a high-quality assessment that gives a more detailed view than ever before of students’ reading readiness and where they need assistance. I’m excited that our plan to extend this new reading test to all Idaho schools is moving forward.”

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