What Do iStation Scores Mean?

Whoa, y’all. Did you know that iStation serves over 4.4 million students in 28 states across the US? And yet, no one is blogging about the iStation reading program. That’s because it’s the world’s driest topic. I’m here to jazz it up! You’re welcome.

If a mama blogger who focuses on the school-home connection isn’t writing about iStation, then WHO WILL!?! Clearly, I have a responsibility to enlighten you friends about this glorious online reading program.

What do iStation scores mean? Lots of things. iStation is the biggest wealth of knowledge EVER about your child’s reading gaps and strengths, and I love a good data point. For us teachers who are data junkies, iStation is like a dream come true. You’re gonna love it, too. Promise. Keep reading and I’ll help you sort out those iStation reading scores. 


This post may contain affiliate links, which means I could earn a small commission from your clicks. It doesn’t affect your costs.

This post contains lots of information taken from iStation.com, including many of their pictures. My goal with this post is to synthesize information from the iStation.com website, making it more accessible for parents. I’ve added edits to the photos from iStation to draw attention to different parts of the report. I hope it helps!

What’s the difference between iStation reading and ISIP?

iStation is the reading program that your child works on multiple times per week.  It’s a reading program that’s targeted to your child’s exact reading level, and factors in their weaknesses and strengths.

Within iStation is an ISIP progress monitoring test. It only takes 20 minutes and happens once per month. It’s a way to get a very quick and clear picture of how the student is growing (or not). Usually, teachers and administrators work hard to protect this 20 minute time period each month so that students get a consistent testing environment. 

Your teacher will often take a moment to celebrate each child’s growth when the test is over. The results are immediate; as your child finishes test, the results are populated in the teacher portal.

little girl in glasses who will take an istation test

Why does my child think iStation is so boring?

One challenge of iStation is that students need at least a 25 minute time block to work on iStation. If they quit before those 25 minutes are over, they’ll be restarted on that section the next time they log in.

If teachers are using iStation as a time-filler when a kid finishes an assignment early, it can get REALLY old for the kid. They’ll be stuck doing the same activity over and over without an opportunity to level up.

It’s also not as fun as some math games out there. The program does WORK however to improve students reading ability, assuming they are putting forth the effort when they log in. It has less of a “game” experience to it.

If your school has implemented iStation correctly, students with a greater need of reading support will spend more minutes on iStation than a more advanced reader. Time spent in the app is meant to be differentiated instruction.

PS, if your child keeps getting in trouble at school due to boredom, I have a post about that. 

Free iStation Data Tracker and Goal Setting PDF

If your child is bored with iStation, or your students, it might be time to get more intentional about goal setting, so they can see their progress throughout the year.

I’ve got two free iStation data trackers for reading here: one is for schools that run August-May, and another for those who attend September-June.

What do iStation scores mean?

In your child’s backpack, once a month, he or she should come home with a report that looks something like this. I’ve zoomed in on the top of it, and highlighted the Current Reading Program Cycle. 

student summary handout for istation with current reading program cycle highlighted

Current Reading Program Cycle

In the above sample, Jemel’s current reading cycle is 8. 

That information is actually not very helpful to parents, because cycles don’t correspond to grade levels or anything we can easily get our heads around.

Different cycles work on different reading skills. When your child is placed in a cycle (by the program, not your teacher), it’s based on a skill deficit rather than an overall reading ability. For example, if your child needs more practice decoding R-Controlled vowels, they’ll be placed in whatever cycle offers that support. 

The cycles ARE sequential, however. Reading skills do build on each other, so Cycle 1 might deal with CVC words, whereas Cycle 11 and 12 will be focused more on reading comprehension. 

Lexile Student Measure

iStation scores chart with "lexile student measure" highlighted

Jemel’s current Lexile measurement, according to iStation, is BR285. That means he’s just starting out on his reading journey. Yay, Jemel!

Lexile measurements are extremely handy for parents. 

For one, it can give you a basic understanding of your child’s reading level. They do roughly correlate to grade levels. 

More importantly, it’s a very widely used tool for measuring the difficulty of a text, making it one of the best ways to help choose books that are on the right level for your child. Most books have been assigned a Lexile score, and it’s easy to look up.

Hint: if your child is already reading fluently and above grade level, you might consider paying less attention to reading level and more attention to the appropriateness of a text. Read more here

There’s no good reason to get bogged down in how Lexile levels are assessed, but it basically deals with the complexity of a text. How long are the sentences? What’s the word frequency?

lexile to grade level conversion chart

Credit: Dearborn Public Schools Blog

So you can see that since Jemel’s Lexile measure is BR (beginning reader) 285, he’s right around Kinder-1st grade reading level.

It’s not super specific, and there can be a wide range of Lexile scores in each grade level.

The best part about Lexile measurements are matching kids with books.

The Lexile website has a “find a book” tool that allows you to type in your child’s Lexile measurement and select from a list of categories, and it will populate books for you within an appropriate range and interests.

You can also reverse engineer it, and quickly look up the Lexile level of any favorite book to see if it’s too easy, just right, or a reach for your child. 

Student Tiers or Levels

Notice below that our little friend Jemel has been identified as a Tier 2 friend: “at some risk of not meeting grade level expectations.” 

iStation student summary handout with tier highlighted

On the Overall Reading square, immediately below the highlighted bit, you’ll see three zones: red, yellow, and green.

Green corresponds to Tier 1: on track to meet grade level expectations.

Yellow corresponds to Tier 2: at some risk of not meeting grade level expectations .You’ll notice that from September 2017 to May 2018, Jemel stayed pretty tightly in the yellow range.

Red corresponds with Tier 3: at significant risk of not meeting grade level expectations.

The tiers are correlated to state standards and our standardized tests. Here in Texas, a student who is in the red or yellow zone in February has us on the edge of our seats: will he pass the STAAR test? If your child is currently in the yellow zone by December, I would consider additional support outside of school hours. 

However, iStation has recently gotten more specific about those tiers or “prediction bands.” Now, there are 5 levels instead of 3 tiers. Still, if your child is in that second or third level, that’s roughly equivalent to the 2nd tier and worth digging into. 

istation levels to help understand what do istation scores mean

Trend Line – Overall Reading and Subtests

trend line highlighted on the student summary report

If I were Jemel’s mom, I would be proud of his effort on ISIP tests. 

Notice above where I’ve highlighted in yellow. On both Overall Reading and the two subtests pictured (Letter Knowledge and Phonemic Awareness), Jemel kept growing. You want to see that number going up across the whole year. Each dot represents a new month of testing. There are months where we see a dip – likely due to lack of focus or just a more challenging test. But overall, Jemel is growing. 

If your child is the yellow or red zone (Tier 2 or 3), you want to see that trend line as steep as possible. In Overall Reading, Jemel is growing, but not very fast. 

What is the iStation Reading Ability Index?

istation ability index -what do istation scores mean

Ability Index is not a very helpful data point for parents. Think of it as a raw score. Since it’s not a 100 point scale, it’s a bit hard to understand. But I can get you in the ballpark!

Here, you can see that Jemel’s Ability Index is 218 on overall reading. What does 218 mean? Well, it means that he’s in the yellow zone, which means we’re not sure he will meet the state standards this year.

The Ability Index serves only to place a kid into one of those three tiers. As long as you know your child’s tier, strengths and weaknesses, the Ability Index or raw score on iStation isn’t very important.

So let’s get into those strengths and weaknesses. First, realize that each subtest pictured here (letter knowledge, phonemic awareness, alphabetic decoding, comprehension, and vocabulary) are all part of the overall reading score.

That means that Jemel’s weakness in comprehension is hurting his overall reading score. It makes sense. Conversely, his vocabulary is helping him.

How to Understand iStation Reading Percentile Rank

iStation percentile rank on subtests - what do istation scores mean

Percentile rank is interesting because it gives parents a little extra information about how their child is performing on each subtest compared to their peers. 

Each subtest spells it out nicely for parents, so you don’t have to remember what percentile rank means. 

For example, the Phonemic Awareness subtest says that Jemel scored “better than or equal to 83% of students who took this test in May.” 

He’s only being compared to other students his age who took that particular subtest, but the students are all across the country rather than within his own campus. 

What do these subtests mean? Can I see a sample iStation reading test?

If you’re not a reading teacher, you may not even know what some of these subtests are actually testing. So let’s dig in. All photos come directly from iStation.com.

I’ve added edits to the photos to draw attention to different parts of the report. 

subtest names on istation

Overall Reading

Overall Reading is the only one that isn’t a subtest. It’s simply a picture of all the other subtests averaged together. 

Letter Knowledge

letter knowledge iStation subtest

You’ll see the Letter Knowledge subtests if your child is in early elementary or a struggling reader. Your child wears headphones during the ISIP test. A voice will say a letter like “Q.” Your child needs to quickly tap the Q on the screen. 

You can see that Jemel has got his letters mastered. He’s performing better than 81% of his peers at Letter Knowledge. That’s not where his reading breakdown occurs. 

Phonemic Awareness

phonemic awareness subtest in iStation

Phonemic awareness is the ability to manipulate individual sounds in words. It’s a REALLY important building block for phonics. 

It means that if you say DOG, your child can hear the sounds for D, short vowel sound O, and the sound for soft G. 

If you ask your child how many sounds she hears in dog, she should be able to tell you three sounds. 

iStation asks these questions in a couple of different ways. One of them is to show four pictures, and the narrator says the names of each picture. Then, another word is spoken that shares a starting sound with a picture. 

The narrator says something like, “Dog, moon, lock, mat. Which picture starts with a <L> sound? The child should click on the lock. 

If you think you’re seeing signs of dyslexia: check out my post about common dyslexia myths.

Look at the iStation report, and determine if comprehension and vocabulary are strengths relative to both phonemic awareness and alphabetic decoding. 

Learn more about phonological and phonemic awareness at Reading Rockets. 

If you scroll back up to Jemel’s phenomic awareness subtest, you’ll see that his reading performance starts to break down here. You must have solid phonemic awareness BEFORE you can have success with decoding words, or with the iStation alphabetic decoding test. That’s where Jemel’s reading starts to really break down.

Alphabetic Decoding

alphabetic decoding question example in iStation

Alphabetic Decoding is a subtest that measures a students’ grasp of phonics.

This is measured by presenting students with a group of nonsense words. The narrator speaks a word into the headphones. The student must click on the right nonsense word based on the sounds she hears.

Some kids who just learned to read well with whole language (rather than systematic phonics instruction) will do poorly on this test, in spite of reading well. Don’t sweat it. If you already know how to read, nonsense words can be pretty confusing.

On the other hand, if your child isn’t reading well yet and needs phonics instruction, this subtest can illuminate weaknesses in the students decoding ability.

Vocabulary ISIP Subtest

vocabulary subtest iStation

The vocabulary test in iStation helps teachers and parents understand what might be contributing to a students’ weak or high comprehension test. 

The narrator might read four words above to the student while a highlighted border surrounds the word. Then, the narrator asks the student to click which words means “small.” 

Spelling ISIP Subtest

spelling isip subtest

The narrator will state a word aloud, and the student must select letters to create the correct spelling. 

If your child is struggling with spelling, sometimes the answer is fairly simple. Lots of kids seem to think they need to fill every one of those blanks on the image above. The blanks do not necessarily correspond to the number of letters in the word. Some kids will start adding random letters to try and match the number of spaces. 

Text Fluency

text fluency subtest

If your child is reading, they’ll be given a subtest that measures text fluency. They will independently read a passage that’s on grade level, and be asked to select the correct answer for each blank. The test only lasts two minutes and students fill in as many blanks as possible. 

Listening Comprehension

listening comprehension ISIP

Listening and speaking are both important parts of literacy. So in the early grades and before reading starts to really take off, iStation will test your child on listening comprehension. 

The narrator reads a short story or sentence, and the student clicks the picture that best represents the story. 

Reading Comprehension

reading comprehension ISIP subtest question type

This is a reading comprehension question for a child who’s just starting to read. 

A sentence is written (not read aloud). The child reads the sentence and selects the picture that best represents her understanding. 

reading comprehension ISIP subtest question

Another type of comprehension question requires students to select the best missing word. The sentence is not spoken aloud, and neither are the answer choices. 

Why does my child only have certain iStation subtests on their report?

The test is customized based on your child’s overall reading level at the time of testing. For example, when a child takes their first test in kindergarten, they likely won’t be assessed on reading comprehension. That’s because they’re still being tested on more foundational principles. 

Why are some of the subtests not color coded on my child’s report?

istation report for advanced students

This kindergarten student has two sections that are not color coded. 

Alphabetic Decoding was tested for the first time in November, and then again in December and January.

Reading Comprehension was tested for the first time in December and then again in January.

Those tests opened up for this student because she demonstrated mastery on other assessments, indicating she was ready to be measured on decoding. It’s not color coded for her because it’s not a grade level expectation; she’s advancing beyond the expectations. Additionally, these two tests don’t have a percentile rank because there aren’t enough other students testing here for comparison.

How can my child improve their iStation scores?

First, remember that the main goal is to improve your child’s reading, not necessarily just score higher on the iStation test.

Still, it was sometimes very obvious to me as a reading teacher that a child was scoring beneath their potential based on a lack of interest. We really need kids to try their best on the ISIP test, because we use the subtest scores to identify intervention needs.

For example, if a child scores unexpectedly low in alphabetic decoding but does well with comprehension, we may pull that student for a small group for phonics. If the child just spaced out momentarily during the 20 minute test, we’re getting bad information and not using the child’s time wisely (which also deprives another kid of that spot at the table). 

Talk to your child about the importance of trying their absolute best on iStation day. Incentivize improvement rather than a specific raw score on overall reading. You might give your kiddo a quick pep talk on ISIP testing day. Let them know you plan to celebrate together that night if he or she comes home having improved from last month. You want to see that trend line going up! 

It’s also really great to reinforce growth rather than using that percentile rank number. How your child performs compared to other kids is good information for you and the teacher, but it’s NOT something to share with your child. 

What should we do if my child consistently scores low on a certain subtest?

Teachers have SOOO much data to look at each week. It is truly overwhelming and iStation is only a small part of the puzzle. If you notice that your child is struggling with one or two subtests, call a meeting with your child’s teacher to discuss. It’s possible that it hasn’t even hit her radar yet. 

Making her aware of the weakness can really help your child get support early in the year when there’s still time to grow a lot.

For more information about teacher meetings, check out this post all about parent-teacher conferences. 

Ask the teacher what sort of reading tasks can help support the weakness. Sometimes it’s just developmental, and your child will hit an intellectual growth spurt right on time. 

Finally, remember that there’s nothing more helpful to a child than at-home reading with Mom and Dad. There’s just no substitute for cuddling under a blanket with a picture book.

Read the story, stopping frequently to ask higher-level comprehension questions. “Why do you think the character said that?” “How is this character feeling right now? And, “What do you think that word might mean?” 

Check out my favorite picture books and favorite chapter books.

How can we use iStation at home?

You can download it at home and ask your child’s teacher for login information.

If your child brings home a school-issued iPad or Chromebook, which is pretty common since Covid-19, it’s likely already on the device. Many students will log in through Clever. See the iStation logo above to easily spot the iStation program on your child’s device. 

Are there any iStation cheats?

iStation is not a good place to use a “cheat,” because the program is geared toward identifying strengths and weaknesses. You’ll be depriving your child’s teacher of really valuable information. She needs accurate data to support your kid. This isn’t like a video game where you’re leveling up just for the fun of it.

iStation student summary handout pinterest pin

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