Idaho’s schools are not failing – let’s recognize their success

By Don Coberly, Geoffrey Thomas, Wil Overgaard

At a recent House Education Committee hearing on HB627 (now revised as HB 723), a bill to move state funding for schools from average daily attendance (ADA) to enrollment, committee member Representative Judy Boyle said that she could not support continuing to pay for “failing schools.” She repeated the statement again for emphasis. Her comment came during a gathering of school board trustees and superintendents in attendance to see their legislators in action and to encourage the committee to extend the current temporary funding formula, based on enrollment, for two more years.

It left us wondering about the legislator’s negative hyperbolic statement and the motivations behind it. We agree that there is always, ALWAYS room for improvement in our public schools. But to broadly cast Idaho’s public schools as failing? That statement is simply not accurate.

Plenty of data demonstrates that Idaho schools and students perform as well or better than their peers across the nation – in spite of Idaho’s per pupil expenditure being 51st in the nation.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the ONLY assessment that measures student achievement between states across the country, comparing “apples to apples.” Known as the Nation’s Report Card, NAEP is administered to a representative and randomized sample of several thousand students in grades 4 and 8 in every state bi-annually. Since 1969, NAEP has been a common measure of student achievement in reading and mathematics.

Results are reported as average scaled scores and the percentage of students reaching the NAEP established achievement levels – Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. NAEP does NOT report results for individual students or schools. Unlike the other statewide assessments that are unique to Idaho, NAEP gives the same questions to every test taker in every state. Because of this, NAEP provides a common yardstick for measuring student achievement and makes state comparisons possible.

Because of the pandemic, NAEP, which is administered bi-annually, was postponed in 2021, but is scheduled to resume this spring (2022).

Results from the 2019 administration of NAEP in Idaho are indicators of how Idaho’s 4th and 8th grade public school students performed in math and reading compared to their peers in all 50 states.

  • 4th Grade
    • Math: Idaho 4th graders’ average score (242) on the math assessment was significantly higher than 4th grade students in 21 other states; while students in only 6 states scored significantly higher than Idaho students.
  • Significantly higher means that the results cannot be attributed to chance or explained by a statistical margin of error.
  • Reading: Idaho 4th graders’ average score (223) in reading was also significantly higher than the 4th grade students in 21 states; while students in only 3 states scored significantly higher than Idaho students.
  • 8th Grade
    • Math: Idaho 8th graders’ average score (286) on the math assessment was significantly higher than 8th grade students in 29 other states; while students in only 3 states scored significantly higher than Idaho students.
  • Reading: Idaho 8th graders’ average score (266) in reading was significantly higher than the 8th grade students in 29 states; while students in only 2 states scored significantly higher than Idaho students.

How did Idaho 4th and 8th graders measure up to their peers in our neighboring states?

Idaho students’ average scores were higher than their peers in California, Nevada, and Oregon*. There was no significant difference in the overall average scores between Idaho students and students in Washington, Montana, Utah, or Wyoming**.

*Oregon 8th graders had a higher average score than Idaho in reading.

**Wyoming 4th graders had higher average scores than Idaho in math and reading.

Credit for this success goes to the efforts of Idaho’s students and their teachers, aided by the ongoing support of parents, administrators, local school boards and the state agencies that oversee and guide Idaho’s public education system.

There are no consequences for making disparaging and inaccurate accusations against Idaho’s public schools, nor in characterizing the state of education in Idaho as failing. We see examples of our students, in the aggregate and individually, performing very well every year. We agree that there will always be a need to find ways to improve outcomes for students by improving and strengthening the way public schools operate across the state.

But it’s just as important to recognize success when and where it is evident and to share that success with a wary public that is constantly barraged with negative messages – especially from those who are charged with the responsibility of leading and guiding the effort in the germane committees of the legislature.