Making sense of assessment

Laura Bush

Laura Bush is the programme manager of Global Services at MetaMetrics, the creators of The Lexile Framework for Reading, which objectively measures reading ability and text complexity on the same developmental scale.

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Reading is incredibly important in supporting students’ overall growth. It’s a predictor of success in further education and life, with achievement in Mathematics and reading significantly associated with academic motivation and quality of life. So it is understandable that education policy largely focuses on developing strong readers at an early age. With that focus comes assessment requirements that can be confusing to parents and exhausting to educators. How do we communicate the value of assessments and the importance of data they return?

An assessment culture

The positive impact of student engagement with reading has resulted in what can feel like a national obsession with grading. Both children and teachers feel the pressure of constantly needing to showcase current performance.

Parents and students may feel overwhelmed by testing without knowing how the results are to be used and how they benefit the student. However, educators know that each type of reading assessment reveals a different piece of information about the student. How can we explain the value of each test and contextualise the results?

Assessment that supports instruction

The true value of an assessment is evident when the results can be easily understood and linked back to classroom practice. If assessments report hard-to-digest metrics or make the educator’s job more difficult, we “Screening assessments provide a ‘red flag’ when a reading difficulty is demonstrated.”have failed. One way of gaining this value is by selecting assessments that give teachers the answers needed to tailor their lessons to the students’ needs.

When a common reading metric - one that accounts for both reading ability and the difficulty of reading material - is adopted by an educational community, teachers can immediately connect performance across multiple assessments, describe growth with equivalent units, understand the complexity of instructional material, the reading demands of students’ aspirational careers, and even the complexity of familiar pleasure-reading books. A common reading metric makes it easy to contextualise assessment results for students and parents alike. Once an educator has access to reading metrics that make sense, the task of communicating the whys of assessments is that much easier.

In turn, by having information about the many skills that contribute to reading, such as their students’ vocabulary or understanding of complex sentences, teachers are better placed to tailor their teaching to these individual needs. Ultimately, once an educator has access to assessments that make sense, they can combine information on a student’s reading ability to measurements of text complexity to gain a clearer map of where a reader is currently and where they need to be.

With a student who is on-track for their age and school year, an educator could share their reading assessment score along with pleasure-reading book suggestions at a “just right” level of complexity on loved subjects to the student and parents. Or, for a struggling reader, an educator could point to where the student is and where they want to be as a means of stimulating motivation. “You want to be a videogame designer? Awesome! Then you will need to read at level Z. Right now you are at level X. Let’s make a plan for getting you there!” We all recognise the power of bringing parents into their child’s learning, and this is no more important than in developing a love of reading and necessary skills. Connecting the dots with a common metric and personalised support can go a long way in developing strong readers.

Getting the right information at the right time

Reading isn’t a singular skill. Rather, it is a complicated process made up of many skills, like word recognition and fluency. Some assessments address reading comprehension overall, while others drill down into specific reading tasks. For educators to deliver quality instruction to students, including effective interventions for those that need extra support, it is vital that they get the feedback they need at the right time.

Screening assessments are typically delivered early on in a student’s education or when a school change is made and usable records have not“Diagnostic tests gather information such as students’ phonemic awareness.” transferred. They provide a ‘red flag’ in cases where a student demonstrates reading difficulties. Timing is everything - research has shown us that the earlier reading interventions can be applied the greater the success rate for those students. Acting swiftly early on can have a positive impact on that individual’s entire life. That is why we can’t wait around to assess.

Once a student has been flagged in a screening as being at-risk for reading difficulties, educators need to know the best intervention to apply. Diagnostic assessments provide that granular information. For example, a diagnostic test gathers information about some of the many skills that contribute to the reading process, such as their students’ phonemic awareness or their understanding of complex sentences. Results from diagnostic tests should directly inform what intervention should be applied to best support the student. For example, a student that is found to be struggling with blending phonemes is a good candidate for focused instruction and experience with letter-sound relationships.

Progress monitoring is just what the name implies: an assessment that periodically tests how far a student has come towards their reading goal in an instructional period. Typically, the progress monitoring goes hand-in-hand with interventions to make sure they are having the intended result - reading growth. They can provide the assurance that interventions are working, or give teachers the opportunity to adjust strategies within an instructional period.

Summative assessments are the time intensive, high-stakes tests that can feel most overwhelming. But if they are well-designed and well-aligned to the curriculum, they will deliver the statistical data that administrators need to make critical decisions regarding resource allocation. And without these summative assessments, teachers wouldn’t know if their students were progressing as expected according to national standards. There would certainly be no way to accurately compare peers in neighbouring communities, much less across nations.

No one likes to feel as though their time is being wasted. Therefore, I’d suggest that much stress and confusion around reading assessments could be cleared away by explaining the above connections, for students and parents, between assessment results and daily classroom practice.

We need students and parents to see how a robust reading programme is like a puzzle. Then assessment pieces can be combined, forming a clear picture of reading ability. A common reading metric becomes the bridge between assessment and instruction; the means to communicate effectively to educators, parents and students.

Using data wisely

Of course, assessment in and of itself is not a solution for improving reading growth. It is merely a tool for supporting a high-quality education, and should not be confused with the raison d'etre. We can avoid wasting precious resources and get the very best outcomes for our students when we properly use assessments and reading programmes. That means demanding and utilising reading metrics that matter and communicating their connection to instruction clearly.

We should be seeking out and advocating for assessments that blend into instruction, that provides data directly supporting student growth and teacher relief. Assessment companies and educators need to be working more closely together to make this happen, as well as to more fully understand each other’s needs. Together, smarter tests will be built that work within the classroom and support accurate and effective instruction. In the end, a reading assessment is only as valuable as the knowledge we gain from it.

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