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Male Latino teacher discussing assessment results with male Latino student

Literacy Assessment

Every school should do an initial screening to check on student reading skills at the beginning of each semester or school year. And every teacher should continue to check on students’ progress throughout the year, in order to see whether those kids need more ongoing support.

Every school should also set up an initial screening process to check on student reading skills at the beginning of each semester or school year. And every teacher should continue to check on students’ progress throughout the year (doing what’s generally called “formative assessment” or “assessment for learning”), in order to see whether those kids need more ongoing support.

If doctors performed surgery without examining their patients first, they’d be sued for malpractice. Why should it be considered any more acceptable for teachers to provide instruction without first assessing a student’s knowledge and skills?

Over the years, elementary schools have increasingly made it a priority to assess students’ reading skills and, if students begin to slip behind, to perform a more careful assessment.  That helps teachers to determine what the issues are, so they can provide those students with appropriate support.

Middle and high schools are beginning to catch on. At the secondary level, more and more schools have reading specialists on staff, but few content teachers have been trained to perform reading assessments, and few administrators have given this issue the urgent attention that it deserves. As a result, while it may be obvious that certain students have weak literacy skills, teachers and staff often have no idea why those kids are struggling.

In fact, a whole range of things can cause students to struggle with reading. For example, students might have reading disabilities that haven’t  been diagnosed or vision problems that haven’t been treated. They might never have received decent reading instruction in the early grades. They may also have difficulties with executive function or challenges related to second language acquisition.  Further — and this is true for most adolescents who read far below grade level — they may be able to sound out words and make sense of very basic texts but struggle in other areas, especially reading fluency , vocabulary , and comprehension

Under the federal Every School Succeeds Act (ESSA), every public school is required to test students’ reading skills at the end of the year in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. In other words, every school performs what are called “summative assessments,” referring to tests designed to see whether kids have learned what was taught. 

Every school should also set up an initial screening process to check on student reading skills at the beginning of each semester or school year. And every teacher should continue to check on students’ progress throughout the year (doing what’s generally called “formative assessment” or “assessment for learning”), in order to see whether those kids need more ongoing support.

 


Assessment: the basics

Implement a specific plan to conduct an initial, general screening of every student’s reading skills at the beginning of each school year.  

The goal is to efficiently determine how many students are reading at grade level, how many are likely to need a little extra support, and how many appear to have serious difficulties, requiring further assessment.

It may seem like a tall order to screen every student in this way, but it is also a high priority — and in fact, this sort of screening really isn’t all that difficult, expensive, or time-consuming.

First, over the summer, you can review your students’ results from the previous year’s state-mandated reading test. That should give you a preliminary snapshot of their reading levels, allowing you to make a ballpark estimate as to the number of students likely to require specialized support services.

Next, you can schedule and plan a brief all-school reading assessment for one of the first days of the school year. The goal is to get an initial measure of how well students can decode text, how quickly and accurately they read, whether they read with appropriate expression, and how well they comprehend the sorts of texts they’ll be expected to read in school.

The most common way to perform this kind of initial assessment is to schedule a day when every student will be asked to read out loud for a few minutes to a teacher or staff member. (Students should be assured that the assessment is meant only to check on their skills and that it will have no impact on their grades.) There’s no reason for this to be a huge interruption, though. Depending on how many faculty and staff members help out, it should take only two or three class periods to screen everybody.

The idea is to have every student read the same text (something non-specialized and more or less at students’ grade level) for a specific length of time, and then to retell and summarize what they’ve read. Usually, a simple scoring system is used to rate students’ reading comprehension, rate, and fluency (including how many words per minute they read, how accurately, and with how much expression), allowing teachers to flag those who seem to be struggling with particular skills.

Depending on the results of the initial screening, some students (perhaps those scoring two or more years below grade level) should then be given a more targeted diagnostic assessment.  

This assessment will yield  a detailed and reliable picture of your students’ strengths and weaknesses. This should let you know precisely what kinds of reading instruction, tutoring, or other support they need, and it should help you decide whether to refer particular students for more specialized testing and services.

Throughout the year, continue to check on students’ progress in reading and writing.  

Such formative assessments don’t have to be fancy to be useful. Every 4-6 weeks, for example, teachers might repeat one or more of the screening tests done at the beginning of the year, in order to gauge students’ improvement over time. Or, on a weekly or even daily basis, teachers can assign quick and informal activities that help them to keep track of students’ progress.

For example, we can give students a short, ungraded quiz before teaching a unit and then repeat the quiz afterwards, to see how well students learned the given vocabulary, skills, or content; we can ask students to write a brief summary of an in-class reading, in order to see whether they followed the argument or understood the main point; or we can ask students to do a “think/pair/share” activity — taking notes on a reading assignment, discussing them with a classmate, and reporting back to the whole class — as a way to check for comprehension.

 


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