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Reading Assessment | Don’t Test What You Can’t Teach

Don't Test Reading Comprehension

Don’t Test What You Can’t Teach

Teachers got into this business to teach, not to test. However, teachers do see instruction as a product of good assessments. Check out my criteria for good reading assessments in this article: RtI Reading Tests and Resources.

Assessment-based instruction certainly makes sense in reading intervention and in ESL/ELD classes. But which tests don’t make sense?

The tests that don’t assess what is teachable.

As an M.A. reading specialist and educational author, I get reading assessments questions quite frequently. Believe me, regarding reading assessments, I’ve been there and done that—from the old tried and true up to and including the latest and greatest. I, like most teachers, want to apply science to the art of teaching. Assessments can be useful tools of the trade. But, not all assessments.

Just received this email from an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher:

Dear and Highly Respected Sir/Madam,

Hope you will be in the best status of health and peace; both mental and physical. I m quite curious regarding teaching reading and reading assessment K -5. Here, in my country, things for teachers are not innovative, interactive and communicative. 

As I am teacher of English and working on reading assessment during these years, I really need some material, I will be very thankful and obliged if you provide me some material regarding reading assessment.

  1. School wide Reading Assessment Plan (it should include action plan for all formative and summative terminal and annual plan that can be applied to a country having English as a second language)
  2. Model Formative k – 5 reading assessment sheets (which can be used during formative and summative assessment of reading
  3. Modal Summative K-5 reading assessment sheets (which can be used on the occasion of annual assessment)
  4. Literature regarding one – on – one oral and written K-5 reading assessment
  5. Literature regarding the whole class K – 5 reading assessment

This will be a great service to humanity from your side.

Following is my response:

Greetings,

I offer free diagnostic reading assessments for children ages 8-18: four of which should be used as schoolwide placement assessments. They are asterisked (*). Download at http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/pennington-publishing-elareading-assessments/

Recording matrices and audio files are included. The diagnostic assessments are perfectly appropriate to be used as summative assessments, as well.

The formative assessments are included in my comprehensive https://penningtonpublishing.com/collections/reading/products/teaching-reading-strategies-sam-and-friends-phonics-books-bundle Perfect for English as a second language.

Regarding assessment articles: Some included in http://blog.penningtonpublishing.com/reading/free-response-to-intervention-rti-resources/

Overall, my advice is the following:

  1. Screen all grades 3-5 readers with the asterisked assessments.
  2. Administer the rest of the whole-class assessments to the struggling readers identified in the screening (program placement) assessments.
  3. Avoid time-consuming individual assessments, except the individual reading fluency assessment.

I would express a few caveats to this last recommendation:

  • If the teacher notices repeated word reversals, repeated line-skipping, or herky-jerky eye movements during the reading fluency assessment, I would recommend referral to a certificated vision therapy optometrist or ophthalmologist. Poor tracking can be re-trained.
  • If the teacher notices hearing impairment or speech impediments or reads about chronic ear inflections in the student’s cumulative file, I would recommend referral to a physician and speech therapist. If the teacher notices any cognitive challenges, such as inability to follow simple directions or lack of short term memory, I would refer to a special education teacher for testing.
  • If a teacher notices significant discrepancies among the diagnostic results, such as the inability to blend and segment (in the phonemic awareness assessments), but mastery of the sight word and sight syllable assessments, I would recommend additional assessments to confirm a reading diagnosis: in this case probably no understanding of the alphabetic principle, but exclusive “look-say” sight word learning.

One further note: I do not recommend individual reading comprehension testing. Check out my article titled “Don’t Teach Reading Comprehension.” Having administered many of these tests over the years, I have yet to see the value of such tests. The tests, which can indicate approximate grade or Lexile levels can only do just that. Using running records or simple word recognition counts can provide the same data and determine which book levels are appropriate for instructional and independent reading. Read my article on “How to Determine Reading Levels.

Additionally, reading comprehension test questions cannot isolate the variables to the degree necessary to remediate with specific strategies. For example, a test item following a reading passage which states, “In lines 32 and 33 the author suggests that…” none of the multiple-choice answers, nor any reader response, can differentiate among these reading skills: main idea, inference, or drawing a conclusion.

According to Daniel Willingham, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Virginia, such reading strategies as “tricks,” and “short-cuts” to comprehension. Check out his Washington Post article. I would agree to some extent and suggest that testing for mastery of these discrete reading strategies is inadvisable—we can’t pinpoint exactly which reading skill is being tested by reading comprehension questions. Thus, the instructional utility of the reading comprehension assessments is quite limited. My suggestion? If you can’t teach to it; don’t test to it.

This is not to say that teachers should not be teaching reading comprehension strategies—they should. Even if they are “tricks” to

Test Only What You Can Teach

Only Assess What is Teachable

understanding as Willingham argues; however, these strategies are qualitatively different than other reading skills. Reading skills, such as phonics, are instructional necessities. Reading comprehension is what reading is all about. However, given the always present challenges of time and expense, focus on using the assessments that are teachable.

In short, my advice is twofold: Only Assess What is Teachable and Don’t Test What You Can’t Teach.


Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesDesigned to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable eBooks (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Or why not get both programs as a discounted BUNDLE? Everything teachers need to teach an assessment-based reading intervention program for struggling readers is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, tiered response to intervention programs, ESL, ELL, ELD, and special education students. Simple directions, YouTube training videos, and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program.

What do teachers have to say about the program?

I just visited your website and, oh my, I actually felt my heart leap with joy! I am working with one class of ESL students and two classes of Read 180 students with behavior issues and have been struggling to find methods to address their specific areas of weakness. I am also teaching three senior level English classes and have found them to have serious deficits in many critical areas that may impact their success if they are attending college level courses in a year’s time. I have been trying to find a way to help all of them in specific and measurable ways – and I found you! I just wanted to thank you for creating these explicit and extensive resources for students in need. Thank you!

Cathy Ford

By the way, I got Sam and Friends a few weeks ago, and I love it. I teach ESL in S Korea. Phonics is poorly taught here, so teaching phonics means going back to square one. Fortunately, Sam and Friends does that and speeds up pretty quickly. I also like that I can send it home and not charge the parents – we all love that.  I like it a lot! It’s also not about something stupid, like cats and dogs. 

Joseph Curd

I work with a large ELL population at my school.Through my research in best practices, I know that spelling patterns and word study are so important. However, I just couldn’t find anything out there that combines the two. The grade level spelling program and remediation are perfect for my students. 

Heidi

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Eliminating the Trust Factor with Diagnostic ELA/Reading Assessments

As teachers, we pride ourselves on our intuitive judgments. Elementary, middle, high school, and college teachers learn the developmental characteristics and behaviors of our students through professional development and experience. As much as we preach not to “judge the book by its cover,” we do so on a daily basis in our classrooms. We have to. Teaching is informed decision-making and we face a myriad of decisions each day. We think “on our feet” all day long and learn to make quick decisions: When to be a “hard-nose” and when to show mercy; when to challenge and when to coddle; when to “tighten up” and when to “lighten up.”

The subjective decision-making described above is certainly a refined skill. We teachers do make mistakes. But, over time, we learn to trust our judgments and decision-making regarding the behavioral/affective management of the class and the interpersonal relationships and dynamics of the individuals in our classes. We learn to trust ourselves in the art of teaching.

Don’t Trust Yourself

However, we should be wary about being tempted to similarly trust ourselves regarding the science of teaching ELA and reading content and skills. Making instructional decisions based upon “what the students know and what they don’t know” requires objective data to inform our judgments. There are just too many variables to trust even the best teacher intuition: family situations, language, culture, school experience, just to name a few factors that limit our abilities to “go with our guts.” If we are honest, even veteran teachers are often fooled by sophisticated student coping mechanisms and cultural stereotypes. A gregarious boy with excellent oral language skills may be compensating for poor reading skills. A quiet Asian girl with good organizational skills who pays attention well may struggle with the academic vocabulary of the teacher. Only diagnostic ELA/reading assessments can eliminate subjectivity and objectively inform the science of teaching.

Don’t Trust Your Colleagues

Teaching is an independent practice. No matter how many years we have eaten lunch with our teacher peers, no matter how many conferences, department or grade-level meetings we have attended together, no matter how many of the same teaching resources we share, and no matter how specific our scope and sequences of instruction align, we cannot assume that the students of our colleagues have mastered the skills we are to build upon. Whether you are a fifth grade teacher, inheriting Ms. Nathan’s fourth grade class (along with all of her summative assessment data), or you are a high school English teacher picking up where a colleague left off at the end of the semester (with comprehensive writing portfolios), there is no substitute for doing your own diagnostic ELA/reading assessments.

Don’t Trust the Standardized Test Data

The content of the standardized ELA/reading test just can’t be trusted to help the teacher make  informed instructional decisions. The results of standardized tests provide “macro” data that can assess program quality or overall level of a student by using random sample questions to assess student proficiency or achievement. The data does not pinpoint the “micro” data of student strengths and weaknesses in the skills and content that teachers need to assess. Standardized tests are not designed for this purpose.

For example, the standards-based ELA/reading assessment in California lumps together data to classify individual students as Proficient, Advanced, Basic, Below Basic, or Far Below Basic. These classifications do little to inform teacher instruction. Even using  item analyses of the data can only identify percentiles in such areas of “vocabulary in context.” Hardly helpful to specifically address individual student needs… Standardized tests do not provide  ELA/reading teachers with the data that they need to affect instructional change or differentiation. Diagnostic ELA/Reading assessments are designed for those tasks.

In summary, trust the science of comprehensive, diagnostic ELA/reading assessments to inform your instruction. Using this objective data will eliminate the “trust factor” and guess work and enable ELA and reading teachers to effectively differentiate instruction. Check out these free diagnostic ELA and reading assessments.

Over the years I have created, field-tested, and revised a battery of ELA/reading assessments that meet the criteria described above. You are welcome to download a comprehensive consonant and vowel phonics assessment, three sight word assessments, a spelling-pattern assessment, a multi-level fluency assessment, six phonemic awareness assessments, a grammar assessment, and a mechanics assessment free of charge from my website. Most of these assessments are multiple choice and are administered “whole class.” All have recording matrices to help the teacher plan for individual and small group instruction. Once, teachers administer these assessments and analyze the data, many will wish to purchase my teaching resources Teaching Grammar and MechanicsTeaching Essay Strategies, and Teaching Reading Strategies to differentiate instruction precisely according to the data of these diagnostic assessments. Why re-invent the wheel?

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