The goal of a school’s assessment efforts should be to provide a clear picture of student strengths and weaknesses, teacher professional development needs, and the school’s capacity to support a school literacy program. To meet this goal, the school will need to develop a balanced assessment program that uses both formal and informal measures of achievement in gathering data to determine the success of the program.
Formal data, such as standardized test scores, can provide a baseline for evaluating school literacy achievement and can be used to track group progress from year to year. Standardized test scores may also provide general baseline data on individual student, i.e., a student scoring below the 50th percentile or in stanines 1-4 is likely to have reading difficulties. However, the major limitation of standardized test scores is the information garnered does not provide specific data leading to prescriptive activities that will improve student reading and comprehension.
To adequately identify areas of instructional focus, more specific literacy tests should be used. Many such tests are available; choose one that is valid, reliable, provides explicit information related to literacy skills, and can be used for pre and post testing. Whatever the choice, be consistent and do not change tests from year to year.
Informal assessments come in many forms, and their value cannot be dismissed from the total assessment plan. Teacher anecdotal records, informal assessments, student reflective journals, student strategy — use records, portfolios, class grades, and student surveys provide invaluable information that paints a more thorough picture of the individual student’s literacy deficiencies and strengths.
Assessment should be both formative and summative. Data that are collected but not evaluated during and after the implementation of a program, strategy, or literacy improvement plan become a meaningless collection of numbers. Timelines for conducting and analyzing formative and summative assessments provide a framework that keeps everyone on target so that assessment becomes a tool for improvement. The principal should work with the leadership team and faculty to schedule data- or progress-monitoring meetings throughout the school year.
If assessment of practice is not ongoing, then valuable time can be wasted in the effort to improve student literacy. As teachers implement new instructional literacy strategies, formative assessments can determine if the practice is successful. Teachers may also want to conduct action research projects to evaluate how these new practices impact student learning.
Data from summative evaluations of the literacy program enable the staff and administrator to make revisions to the literacy action plan if needed. Summative data to consider are post-tests that provide a standard score for each student’s literacy progress and fully assess the student’s literacy strengths and weaknesses. Results of summative teacher evaluations and observations help the administrator and teacher determine needs for further professional development. Formative and summative evaluations also help to identify master teachers who may serve as mentors or models for other teachers trying to improve classroom delivery of literacy instruction.
It is the action around assessment — the discussion, meetings, revisions, arguments, and opportunities to continually create new directions for teaching, learning, curriculum, and assessment — that ultimately have consequences. The “things” of assessment are essentially useful as dynamic supports for reflection and action, rather than as static products with value in and of themselves.
(Darling-Hammond, Ancess, and Falk 1995, p. 18)
Assessment: Seven Action Steps for the Literacy Leader
1. Become an assessment-savvy leader.
The principal’s role is critical to the assessment process. It is not a job for the weak-spirited because using data to drive instruction often requires making significant changes in curricula, scheduling, and staff. In order to accomplish this, principals should have a comprehensive knowledge of how to collect, analyze, and interpret data. As the primary leader of the school, the principal’s initiative and focus on using data to guide school improvement efforts will profoundly impact how the staff views the importance of assessment data. If the principal has established a climate of collaboration and shared decision making at the school, the staff and community will more easily accept decisions brought about by an analysis of the data.
Working with the Literacy Leadership Team (LLT) and staff, a savvy leader will analyze test data to identify strengths and weaknesses of the literacy instructional program. Test scores should be analyzed for trends. Are students’ scores consistently low in one skill area? Which skill areas are identified as areas of strength? Are there identifiable trends found in grade levels or departmental teams? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the instructional program?
Trends in student achievement can be wisely interpreted only if several years of data are collected. Developing a system to track student achievement through multiple years of grades and standardized test scores is invaluable for the LLT. Spreadsheets are especially helpful as they allow the team to develop graphs and charts that document progress and trends. (See Appendix 5 for a five-year data collecting template.)
Once the assessment data have been recorded and analyzed, the principal, along with the LLT, should use the results to evaluate the literacy proficiency of students, needs for teacher professional development, and the quality of the overall instructional program. This evaluation will help the leadership team to refine the school literacy program.
2. Use data from assessments wisely and in a balanced fashion.
With increased emphasis on accountability and high-stakes tests, there is a danger of allowing one test to dictate our instructional programs. These tests are important and schools should assure that the curricula are closely aligned with local, state, and national standards. However, no one assessment can present a true picture of a student’s achievement level or predict the success or failure of the school. Wise leaders will work with the staff to develop a balanced assessment program to guide the instructional program.
To improve individual literacy ability, and ultimately the school literacy level, there must be an assessment tool that identifies specific literacy strengths and weaknesses. An effective assessment tool will provide a standard score, grade equivalent, and specific identification of literacy weaknesses and strengths. But to fully understand the literacy needs of the student, educators must look at other assessments to complete the picture. These include informal methods such as observations, checklists, anecdotal records, literacy logs or portfolios, and informal literacy inventories. (A more thorough explanation of these techniques appears later in this chapter under “What the Experts and Research Say.”)
Secondary teachers are struggling to understand their role in the teaching of literacy, so it is important to start the process by introducing ways to observe adolescents’ literacy skills and to derive meaning from the observations. To help prepare the staff for this task, it is important to provide training so they understand and use:
- Reading and writing strategies employed by proficient readers
- Strategies for observing and recording students’ interests and attitudes related to literacy
- Techniques for analyzing and understanding what the data reveal.
3. Establish a school culture that utilizes data to guide a literacy program designed to meet the needs of ALL learners, both students and teachers.
Effective school administrators develop a collaborative, reflective school culture. In creating a schoolwide literacy program, it is important to capitalize on that culture as the staff work together to analyze data and develop an action plan to address the learning needs of students and teachers. For a program to be effective, every staff member should be engaged in analyzing, evaluating, and discussing student work as a means of increasing student achievement.
The principal will also need to foster collaboration as the staff work together to develop a schoolwide literacy program that addresses the literacy needs of the students. This endeavor begins with LLT analyzing both formal and informal student data. The analysis should identify strengths and weaknesses of the school literacy program (or the lack of one). Once the analysis is complete, the data should be reported back to the staff and then used to develop a literacy intervention plan (Chapter 6 for more).
It is imperative that the staff play a role in developing a professional learning program that addresses their specific literacy needs. Questions to be considered include the following: Do the teachers have the knowledge base and expertise to provide instruction with literacy strategies within the content area? If not, what professional development does the data indicate is needed by the staff? What information do the teachers need in order to support a secondary literacy program? The answers to these questions will provide a framework for the development and implementation of a comprehensive professional development program. Chapter 4 treats this topic in greater depth.
4. Implement regular data- and progress-monitoring meetings.
Periodic progress-monitoring meetings of student achievement is a significant tool for formative assessment (ARI, 2003). These meetings may be held monthly or at the end of each grading period. The team evaluating current data is normally composed of the literacy coach, classroom teachers, the counselor, and the administrator.
The purpose of the meeting is to track student progress after the initial collection of data. The participants bring class work samples and discuss literacy strategies used in content classes that have improved student performance. There should also be informal literacy assessment data to indicate students’ mastery of literacy skills and areas for focus.
After evaluating current data, a progress-monitoring team should determine what adjustments are needed in the Student’s Individual Literacy Improvement Plan. Key questions to consider when developing/revising the student plans include the following:
- What literacy strategies should content-area teachers use?
Content area teachers should strategically plan the inclusion of pre, during, and post literacy strategies during their daily instruction. They should document strategies used in lesson plans and evaluate student progress and success with strategies. The progress-monitoring session provides an opportunity to evaluate the success of strategy integration. The ultimate indicator is student achievement and how students are succeeding due to the use of specific literacy strategies. If students are not achieving success, additional strategies may be designed and implemented. The progress-monitoring team should work together to develop strategies that provide a strategic and consistent approach to helping students learn essential literacy strategies.
- What additional interventions are needed to guide the student toward success?
The literacy coach/specialist may need to provide one-on-one skill instruction or determine what other intensive intervention strategies may be employed to encourage student success. The progress-monitoring sessions should provide valuable insight into the student’s progress and the current instructional program. The information garnered is a valuable tool to make adjustments as required.
5. Use data to bring teachers to a full awareness of student achievement levels to meet the individual needs of all learners within all classes.
The nation’s teachers are working harder but not always achieving the results that we desire. Students in the upper echelon of the socioeconomic level are achieving higher than the students prior to this generation, but the question and dilemma remains: What are we to do with the students not achieving at proficient levels, and how do we address this achievement gap?
More and more schools are comprised of diverse student populations, bringing their diverse literacy needs into the classroom. Second language learners have multiplied, and classes are comprised of students from across many socioeconomic backgrounds. Therefore, delivery of instruction needs to be directed at meeting the multiple learning styles and needs of today’s students. To fully understand diverse student populations within the school, it is vital to disaggregate data.
To address this issue, teachers must have access to formal and informal data on each student they serve in the classroom. When all teachers have the opportunity to gain an understanding of their students’ achievement strengths and weaknesses, instruction will improve. This understanding does not come with a cursory look at assessment data, but rather an in-depth analysis of all existing data that paints a picture of a need for change and improvement. At this point, it is crucial that the principal provide teachers with access to specialists who can impart best strategies to improve the instructional delivery for each student.
At departmental or team meetings, teachers should analyze assessments to learn what curriculum and/or instructional practices need changing. In student support teams, they should carefully analyze student work and assessments to evaluate student achievement as well as the effectiveness of their own instructional practices at meeting the needs of EVERY student. This is a critical step in the assessment process, because teachers learn so much by discussing and planning for improvement together. It again calls upon the principal’s skill to build a spirit of collaboration because improving literacy begins with the analysis of data, building of trust, and learning from one another.
6. Conduct a weekly Literacy Walk to assess implementation of literacy strategies.
A Literacy Walk provides insight related to the successful implementation of literacy strategies into the day-to-day instructional program. The LLT should regularly conduct a walk-through of content classes to collect informal assessment data on instructional strategies and student engagement.
A Literacy Walk should not be a threatening device, but a tool that encourages collaborative conversations aimed at increasing a teacher’s knowledge and skill at delivering literacy instruction. To alleviate teacher concerns, the purpose of this informal assessment/learning format must be thoroughly understood before implementation. It is not a formal teacher observation, but simply a tool to spark discussions and reinforce the literacy emphasis within the school. This tool has been quite successful in schools that participate in the ARI. The strategy also provides effective identification of professional development needs. Chapter 4 treats the Literacy Walk in greater depth.
7. Use outside experts to guide the use of appropriate assessment tools for your school.
Educators often have only a minimal knowledge of how to choose and interpret the best type of assessments needed to implement an effective adolescent literacy program. Calling upon experts in the area of assessment to work with the school can provide prescriptive suggestions for instructional change as well as ways to work with adolescent learners to increase literacy achievement.
Consultants from testing organizations can provide information about informal assessments, standardized assessments, surveys, and other tools that may be appropriate for your individual school community. Collaborating with a testing company will provide specifics about assessment tools that can be tailored to the school’s situation. A company representative may permit your staff to pilot the use of a test protocol. Additionally, the company may work with you to score large administrations of tests. Although you do not want to commit to one test, testing companies can be a valuable resource to your school through their advice and services.
Professors and graduate students from local universities may be willing to provide technical assistance as you evaluate assessment results. They may help analyze the results of evaluations and work with staff to develop an action plan for improvement. By working on specific instructional strategies to improve literacy learning, their assistance may also provide additional professional development opportunities for the staff. Graduate students can often provide additional help with the administration and the follow-up scoring of individual literacy assessments. Further assistance may come in the guise of tutoring of students with identified literacy weaknesses.
Other help may be available from psychometrists from the local school district or the state department of education. These individuals are experts in the area of testing and can assist you and your staff with the selection of assessment tools and interpretation of the results. They can often help you identify trends and understand your scores in relation to other schools with similar demographics.
- The informal assessments and expert observations done by staff members play a vital role in understanding the needs of your students and your staff.
- Always bear in mind that the steps you take to implement an action plan must be based on the assessment data.
- The most important consideration for the school administrator and staff when evaluating the school literacy assessment program: Is the assessment program balanced and does it consist of both formal and informal assessments? Both formal and informal assessments should be the order of the day. One test should never guide all improvement efforts.
- It is the collaborative planning for assessment and the ongoing analysis of the data that result in improved instruction and increased student achievement.
- And above all, do not forget that the ultimate success of the students is the driving purpose of assessment.
Learn More About It: What the Experts and Research Say About Assessment
According to Grant Wiggins (1997), assessment and learning cannot be separated when planning a secondary literacy program. Therefore, both formal and informal assessments must be consistently utilized and analyzed if they are to play a significant role in improving the literacy program of a school. Examples of each appear below in Figure 3.1.
To adequately identify areas of instructional focus, a standardized literacy test such as the ones listed on the next page should be used. Many such tests exist; the critical point is to find a test that is valid, reliable, and provides valuable insight into the student’s literacy ability and areas for improvement. The key to the selection of an assessment instrument is that the test provides a standard score and other explicit information related to literacy skills.
The informal assessments described in the following section can be used at the middle and high school levels. Although many of these assessments are associated with elementary readers, they are still appropriate for use as an informal assessment instrument at the secondary level.
Class observation. Secondary readers can often pronounce words accurately, but they cannot derive meaning from the text. Close observation by the teacher can help identify specifics of the literacy difficulty. When using this type of observation, the teacher can immediately identify if a student is struggling with word identification skills or fluency. Other data derived from close observation may require more in-depth knowledge of the literacy process. Questions to be answered from a close observation of the student are:
- Does the student understand the meaning of what is read?
- What literacy strategies does the student use to help extract meaning from the text?
- Does the student give up when he or she encounters new words or difficult passages?
Checklists and observation guides. By using checklists and observation guides, the teacher can identify the students’ use of strategies, progress, and literacy interests. When observation guides are used several times during the school year, patterns begin to materialize that provide teachers with information related to student progress.
Student Name: ______________________________________________________
Anecdotal records. Teachers should maintain anecdotal records for each student that include a brief description of each student as he or she reads orally or silently. Following is the information to be recorded:
- What observations can be made about the use of strategies?
- Can the student retell or summarize a passage after reading?
- What are the strengths or weaknesses observed?
J. Camp has difficulty with understanding vocabulary. Impacts success on tests and understanding of text. Concept Definition Maps seem to help performance and understanding.
These brief descriptive recordings are helpful to jog a teacher’s memory of individual student abilities and can be used along with student work when the student support team is trying to develop a plan for improving student achievement. Figure 3.3 is an anecdotal record used by a ninth grade biology teacher.
Reading logs or portfolios are excellent tools to gain a better understanding of a student’s literacy ability and interests. Logs can reveal what types of books students are reading; what thoughts, questions, or insights a student has about a reading selection; how much time is spent reading and the number of books read; and what reading goals have been set and achieved by the reader. Follow-up conferences between the student and the teacher to discuss the log or portfolio provide insightful data related to the student’s choice of reading material and understanding of text. They can give direction to the teacher as to instructional strategies the student may need to improve the reading process.
Informal reading inventories provide information about word attack or identification skills, retelling skills, and comprehension skills. Teachers trained to administer this type of assessment can gain information on reading levels and a general indication of strengths and weaknesses.
Visit the NASSP website at www.principals.org/literacy.