Fifteen years after Idaho laid the groundwork for all students to be good readers by third grade, results have been tepid.
But fueled by Gov. Butch Otter's recent education reform task force and by Idaho students' lackluster reading skills, business and education groups are pushing for a new emphasis on reading.
Rethinking how state remediation dollars are allocated to schools to help struggling young readers.
Getting a handle on how many students are chronically absent from school - and missing vital instruction time.
Emphasizing how to prepare children before they enter school.
In the late 1990s, Idaho was certain it could move the needle on reading skills and showed some initial success.
Between 2001 and 2010, the number of third-graders reading on grade level rose from 57 percent to 77 percent, based on the Idaho Reading Indicator, a short test given to kindergarteners through third-graders. But those numbers haven't moved significantly since.
Last week's results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam that compares Idaho to other states, shows 32 percent of Idaho fourth-graders weren't reading effectively in 2013. NAEP results show little growth among fourth-graders in reading over the past couple of years.
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT
Third grade is a pivotal year for children's reading ability. Those who are not good readers by then are at risk for poor academic performance throughout their school years - and are more likely to drop out of school.
In the 1990s, reading improvement was the critical mission in Idaho education. Today, it's just one of several initiatives, competing with the push for more students in science, technology, engineering and math; Idaho Core Standards and a more rigorous state achievement test; and calls for a shift away from merely promoting students to the next grade in favor of insisting that kids master one subject before they move to the next.
BUILDING BETTER READERS
Idaho pays $90 to school districts for every student in kindergarten through third grade whose Idaho Reading Indicator score shows they need extra help. The money goes for 40 extra hours of instruction.
This year, the State Department of Education is shelling out $1.6 million to help bring those young readers up to speed statewide. But Idaho Business for Education, a group of 85 Idaho corporate business leaders, says the law governing how that money is spent needs tightening.
Today, the districts decide how that money will be used. In Meridian School District, for example, reading-remediation money is pooled to hire additional staffers who work with groups of students.
IBE is considering legislation that would make sure the money follows the child if he or she leaves the district and that districts establish a specific plan for each struggling reading student.
"We need to take reading seriously and not leave it up to chance," said Rod Gramer, Idaho Business for Education president and CEO. "It doesn't do any good to assess, then not do anything to help them."
Linda Clark, Meridian superintendent, sees some shortcomings with IBE's initial proposal.
The district needs to pool a lot of $90 increments to hire additional reading staff. If that money gets pulled away, Clark said, she may encounter difficulty paying for additional instruction.
"Ninety dollars doesn't buy you anything," she said.
Requiring districts to write separate plans for each child would be unwieldy, Clark said. Her district already does individual plans for special-needs students.
"We can't even keep up with the individual plans for special education," she said.
ONE KEY TO SUCCESS: SHOWING UP
Chronic absenteeism is an insidious enemy of building good readers.
"If you look at the number of kids absent from school more than 10 percent of the school year - 18 to 20 days - you will find virtually none of them are reading on grade level," said Ralph Smith, senior vice president for the Annie E. Casey Foundation and manager of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a national effort to improve reading by the third grade.
A University of Utah study showed that 13.5 percent of students in Utah missed 10 percent or more of classes in 2011-2012, even though schools reported average daily attendance at 95 percent. The Utah study showed those students were far more likely to drop out and to read below grade level.
Reasons vary for student absences. Among them are poverty and mobility.
In Idaho, the Department of Education does not track chronic absences. That's another thing IBE wants to see changed.
"We believe the state should collect (the information) by school district so we can start addressing the issue," Gramer said.
The department is backing an advisory council to look at reading recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter's Task Force on Improving Education and consider proposals to improve reading. That could include whether to collect information on chronic absenteeism.
The task force emphasized support for reading mastery as essential for children to move on to other subjects.
Because the state does not keep numbers on absenteeism, the Idaho Statesman contacted the Boise, Meridian, Nampa and Caldwell school districts. They reported a total of 4,502 students who missed 10 percent or more of the 2012-13 school year. That is 5.3 percent of the four districts' total enrollment of about 84,500.
Percentages range from a low of 3 percent in Meridian to 19 percent in Caldwell.
"We don't know the extent of the problem," Gramer said.
The Idaho Third Grade Reading Task Force, a 2-year-old grassroots coalition of business and education groups co-founded by Lauren Necochea, director of Idaho Kids Count, is looking at ways to build better readers.
One of those is to start even before kids get to school.
Idaho's Legislature steadfastly refuses to put money into preschool programs, except for special-needs students. But the task force sees value in programs that help parents get the skills to help their preschoolers prepare for kindergarten.
"We want it to build strong families," Necochea said.
She points to a new federally funded Idaho Health and Welfare program in Kootenai, Shoshone, Twin Falls and Jerome counties in which families can get help learning how to teach their preschoolers.
Idaho got $1 million from an Affordable Care Act grant to operate the program that serves about 120 families.
Part of the program focuses on families learning ways to engage their children, read to them or play games, said Jacquie Watson, program manager.
"Most of the families are hungry for that information," said Deborah Drain, a health specialist who works in the program.
It's too early to gauge the success of the program, which began in summer 2012. But Watson has anecdotal stories of parents becoming more engaged with their children as a result of home visits.
She points to one North Idaho father who had not taken much interest in his child's progress. The home visitor encouraged father and son to read new books at each visit, and to play games or puzzles.
Eventually the father began to pick up the books and read to his son during visits. He also initiated activities with his son. The home visitor reports that the boy's aptitude for learning has improved.
But the home-visit programs reach only about 800 preschool kids, Watson said.
A Casey Foundation report released earlier this month shows that 18,000 low-income children between 3 and 4 years of age don't attend preschool programs, which experts have said can help make children better learners.
"Increased access to voluntary home-visiting services that improve parenting skills and increased access to quality early education would have a significant, positive impact on our children's preparation for school and for life," Necochea said.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts