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How to Differentiate Instruction

With the Response to Intervention (RTI) model now being incorporated into many school districts today, it has become increasingly important to help frame the differentiated instruction (DI) discussion in an objective manner that won’t promote narrow agendas and will encourage teachers to experiment with DI in their own classrooms. Before I offer some tips on the dos and don’ts of differentiated instruction, it makes sense to address the key reasons that some teachers resist this educational approach.

Why Some Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction

1. Some teachers resist implementing DI because they wrongly perceive that managing diverse instructional strategies and on-going assessments would necessitate a veteran superstar teacher with no life outside of the classroom. Some teachers believe that DI requires too much preparation, assessment, correction, and record-keeping. These may have been truisms years ago, but clever teachers have since developed effective short-cuts to planning, assessment, and paper work. DI need not be a cause of teacher “burn-out” and teachers of all ability and experience levels can begin differentiated instruction with proper training and support. Furthermore, DI is not an “all or nothing” proposition, as some would lead us to believe. Most teachers layer in different aspects of DI over time.

2. The increasing emphasis on rigorous standards-based instruction and teaching to high-stakes tests have clearly prevented some teachers from implementing DI. In today’s educational climate, teachers do not want to be accused of “dumbing-down” instruction. However, DI can provide better access to those rigorous standards and greater success on those high-stakes tests, if done right. Differentiated instruction adjusts the focus from teaching to learning. Teachers can help students “catch up” through scaffolded instruction, while the students concurrently “keep up” with rigorous grade-level instruction.

3. Some teachers resist implementing differentiated instruction by attempting to create  homogeneous classes. Early-late reading and math instruction in the elementary grades and tracked ability classes in the secondary schools are designed to provide qualitatively different instruction for different student levels. However, analyzing the data of any subject-specific diagnostic assessment will indicate that students have a wide variety of relative strengths and weaknesses in any subject and that “different student levels” is an arbitrary and unworkable concept. Even within highly-tracked programs, DI is absolutely necessary because each student is unique with different skill sets and learning needs.

*For the complete article on Why Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction, check out this link.

The Whats of Differentiated Instruction

Don’ts

1. Don’t Trust the Standardized Test Data. The results of standardized tests provide “macro” data that can assess program quality or level of student achievement relative to the composite scores of other students. The data cannot pinpoint the “micro” data of student strengths and weaknesses in the skills and content that teachers need to assess. Even standards-based assessments provide only generic data, not the “nuts and bolts” discreet skills analyses that can effectively inform instruction.

2. 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 that we need to build upon.

3. Don’t Trust Yourself. 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. If we are honest, even veteran teachers are frequently fooled by sophisticated student coping mechanisms and cultural stereotypes.

Dos

1. Use relevant and specific diagnostic assessments. Eliminate the trust factor with good diagnosis. Record and analyze the student data to inform direct and differentiated instruction, including what skills and concepts need to be taught, how much time needs to be spent upon instruction, who needs intensive instruction and who needs only review, and who has already mastered the skill or concept. Use whole-class, multiple-choice assessments whenever possible, to minimize assessment and grading times.

2. Develop quick and frequent formative assessments to gauge student mastery of your teaching objectives. Use the data to inform and adapt your instruction accordingly. Learning is the heart and soul of DI, not teaching.

3. Establish and use a collaborative model to determine the whats of instruction. Include students, parents, and teaching colleagues in data analysis. Collaboration is essential to successful implementation of DI and RTI.

The Hows of Differentiated Instruction

Don’ts

1. Just because DI is student-centered, don’t go overboard on adjusting the how of instruction to correspond to student learning preferences. Learning styles, multi-sensory instruction, and multiple intelligences are long-standing educational constructs, but are based upon minimal research. Learning preference inventories do not provide reliable diagnostics about how to differentiate instruction. For example, auditory and visual processing deficits can be diagnosed, but no research has yet demonstrated which instructional strategies work best for these learners.

2. Don’t devolve all decision-making to student choice regarding how they choose to learn. Students don’t know what they don’t know. To devolve the how of instruction to student choice is to abrogate our responsibilities as informed and objective decision-makers. Do we really want to entrust the how of instruction to an eight-year old student and agree that Johnny knows best how to learn his multiplication tables? Do we really want to allow middle schoolers to choose whether they can listen to their iPods® while they silently read their social studies textbooks?

3. Don’t allow the hows of learning to destroy class management or time-on-task instructional efficiency. We should always perform a cost-benefit analysis on how we differentiate instruction. Good teachers weigh the needs of the class and the needs of the individual students, and then make decisions accordingly. Sometimes the optimal instructional methodology needs to be ditched and substituted with another because the students or teacher just can’t handle learning or teaching that way that day.

Dos

1. Consider the needs and differences of the learners. We never want to limit students to our own imaginations. Students do have important insights into their own learning that we need to consider. Teaching students to monitor and experiment with how they learn best is invaluable to their development as life-long learners. This kind of self-reflection can be promoted by teaching metacognitive strategies, such as self-questioning during independent reading or self-assessment on an analytical writing rubric.

2. Model different ways to learn skills and concepts. For example, in composition, some students prefer to draft first and revise thereafter; others prefer to integrate the drafting and revision process. Wouldn’t a teacher-led “think-aloud” that models these two composition processes make sense? Students learn which option or combination thereof works best for them through teacher direction, not from a sink or swim, work-it-out-yourself, trial and error process.

3. Use a variety of instructional methodologies. Effective DI instruction adapts to the needs of the learners. For some skills or concepts, DI involves direct, explicit instruction to pre-teach or re-teach concepts. For others, DI is best accomplished in heterogeneous cooperative groups or homogeneous ability groups. For still others, DI requires individualized instruction, via targeted worksheets and one-on-one review.

At its core, DI is simply good, sound teaching. Some proponents seem to intimate that DI is the ultimate educational panacea. However, no educational approach absolutely ensures student success. Unfortunately, it is all too often the case that you “can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Some students exposed to the best DI will continue to fail. But, directly addressing the individual learning needs of our students, rather than teaching a class as though all individuals in it were basically alike, offers our best chance of success for all.

The writer of this article, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of assessment-based teaching resources in the fields of reading and English-language arts. His comprehensive curricula help teachers differentiate instruction with little additional teacher prep and/or specialized training. Check out the following programs designed to teach both grade-level Standards and help students master those Standards not yet mastered. For the finest in assessment-based instruction…

Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Science of Reading Intervention Program

Pennington Publishing provides two reading intervention program options for ages eight–adult. The Teaching Reading Strategies (Intervention Program) is a full-year, 55 minutes per day program which includes both word recognition and language comprehension instructional resources (Google slides and print). The word recognition components feature the easy-to-teach, interactive 5 Daily Google Slide Activities: 1. Phonemic Awareness and Morphology 2. Blending, Segmenting, and Spelling 3. Sounds and Spelling Independent Practice 4. Heart Words Independent Practice 5. The Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables 1ith comprehension and word fluency practice for older readers. The program also includes sound boxes and personal sound walls for weekly review.  The language comprehension components feature comprehensive vocabulary, reading fluency, reading comprehension, spelling, writing and syntax, syllabication, reading strategies, and game card lessons, worksheets, and activities. Word Recognition × Language Comprehension = Skillful Reading: The Simple View of Reading and the National Reading Panel Big 5.

If you only have time for a half-year (or 30 minutes per day) program, the The Science of Reading Intervention Program features the 5 Daily Google Slide Activities, plus the sound boxes and personal word walls for an effective word recognition program.

PREVIEW TEACHING READING STRATEGIES and THE SCIENCE OF READING INTERVENTION PROGRAM RESOURCES HERE for detailed product description and sample lessons.

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Don’t Rely on Rigor and Relevance

Political and Economic Context

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, public schools have felt mounting pressure to increase the levels of instructional rigor and academic success for all students. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, signed into law in 2002, has forced states to reevaluate their standards and assessment programs according to federal criteria, and adjust to the adequate yearly progress (AYP) provision of NCLB. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) and now the Race to the Top funding has brought additional federal carrot and stick measures to induce states to follow federal guidelines and initiatives. Over the last few months, state legislatures have raced to approve needed changes to qualify for federal dollars. Forty states and the District of Colombia made the federal deadline of January 19 to enable them to access federal funds.

Concurrently, concerns about the growing Achievement Gap, especially with respect to underperforming African-American and Latino sub-groups have come to the national consciousness. Traditionally liberal voices have begun supporting traditionally conservative, anti-public school proposals such as charter schools, open enrollment, vouchers, and teacher accountability-via-assessment. The Obama Administration and U.S. Department of Education support these initiatives. The National Education Association is reeling.

For example, the ARRA funds are to be used to improve student achievement and close the achievement gap through “shared commitment and responsibility.” What is this process defined by the federal government?

  • Adopting rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments
  • Establishing data systems and using data for improvement
  • Increasing teacher effectiveness and equitable distribution of effective teachers
  • Turning around the lowest-performing schools
  • Improving results for all students, including early childhood learning, extended learning time, use of technology, preparation for college, and school modernization http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=204335,00.html

In other words, more and more governmental accountability and less autonomy for school districts, administrators, and teachers.

School districts are failing during the current economic downturn. Deep in debt, districts are enacting furlough days with the consent of powerless teacher unions. Compromises are made to ensure some sort of survival. Districts and teachers are devolving more control to states and the federal government for money to keep afloat. Public education is in crisis mode.

Academic Context

As a precursor to this crisis mode, the in vogue educational leadership trend was the Rigor and Relevance Movement. Popularized over the last decade by Bill Daggett and the International Center for Leadership in Education, with concurrent support from the Institute of Education Sciences (the federal research agency) arm of the U.S. Department of Education, the movement has swept the nation. Largely as a result of historical timing, the Rigor and Relevance (and now, relationships) Movement has become the de facto solution to the ills of public education. Administrators and teachers throughout the United States are using the Rigor and Relevance quadrants to analyze instructional effectiveness.

A Few Working Definitions

Although the movement is pervasive, it is not monolithic. No one holds the trademark on the terms rigor and relevance. In fact, rigor is variously defined. Some define rigor in terms of end-goals, such as high standards or high expectations. Others define rigor as a set of competences as measured by high stakes assessments. Some cross-over adherents from the Essential Schools movement have defined the term as the mastery of educational concepts. Often, the term is defined in terms of process-goals. Instructional methodologies are featured prominently in discussions about rigor. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a favorite, as well as any instructional strategies that elicit critical thinking, deep understanding, exploration, and research.

The usage of relevance also varies. Relevance for students refers to interdisciplinary and contextual learning situations directly connected to real-world problems ranging from routine to complex. Relevance for teachers and administrators implies establishing a vision and mission, and moving forward on school improvement and change initiatives that have purpose and are focused on the agreed-upon needs of that particular school and student population.” http://rebel6.blogspot.com/2010/01/3-rs-not-just-for-students.html David Britten January 3, 2010. So, relevance refers to real-world applications, as well as to the needs and interests of student and school cultures.

Critique of the Rigor and Relevance Movement

As is frequently the case, any educational reform movement produces nuggets that can and should be mined by thoughtful public school stakeholders. However, the harder-to-mine gold often remains, as the placer (surface-level) gold is depleted.

Rigor

Much of what passes for rigor is arbitrary, subjective, and contrived.  For example, proponents of rigor usually align themselves with those who advocate standards-based education. Such standards beg the question on many fronts. Why don’t states all agree on the same standards, if there is such a broad educational consensus as to what they should be? What happens when the consensus changes? Which standards are most/least important? Do standards really reflect broader educational priorities, such as can the student read, write, do math, and think well? What prerequisites are necessary to demonstrate mastery of the standards? Why are certain standards appropriate at certain grade levels? Who decided that a standard is a standard and for what reasons?

Rigor that is not arbitrary, subjective, and contrived consists of instructional content and strategies determined through direct diagnostic and formative assessments of individual students, not arbitrary “Below Basic,” “Basic”, “Proficient,” or “Advanced” categorizations derived from annual standards-based assessments. Although we teach subject matter (content), we also teach children. Rigorous  teachers find out what students need and differentiate instruction to match those needs. Students experience success by successive approximation. Teachers challenge students just enough to help students take risks, but not too much to overwhelm them. Success builds upon success.

Relevance

Much of the renewed interest in relevance has developed from panic-attack reactions to the highly publicized Achievement Gap. Well-intentioned, teacher-induced guilt brings the “it must be my fault that I am not meeting student needs” response. Teachers rush to develop “real-world” career applications to lessons on primary numbers. Teachers ditch archaic Shakespeare for analyses of current hip hop songs. Teachers spend inordinate amounts of time establishing a motivational framework to convince students to memorize the scientific method or key elements from the Periodic Table of Elements. Teachers drop rules of classroom decorum to be culturally sensitive to students who have the proclivity to engage in impulsive outbursts.

Perhaps another view of relevance should be considered. Renowned reading researcher, Anita Archer, categorizes the Achievement Gap as largely a misnomer. She says what we really have is a “literacy gap.” I tend to agree. Until we address this fundamental issue, issues such as instructional strategies to establish relevance are futile. In fact, content literacy should be the true means of attaining educational and personal relevance. Relevance becomes a by-product of educational success, not a series of instructional strategies designed by well-intentioned educators.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary  program.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary
Grades 4-8 Programs

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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Ten Criteria for Effective ELA/Reading Diagnostic Assessments

Diagnostic assessments are essential instructional tools for effective English-language Arts and reading teachers. However, many teachers resist using these tools because they can be time-consuming to administer, grade, record, and analyze. Some  teachers avoid diagnostic assessments because these teachers exclusively focus on grade-level standards-based instruction or believe that remediation is (or was) the job of some other teacher. To be honest, some teachers resist diagnostic assessments because the data might induce them to differentiate instruction—a daunting task for any teacher. And some teachers resist diagnostic assessments because they fear that the data will be used by administrators to hold them accountable for individual student progress.

To ameliorate these concerns, let’s agree to the ten criteria for effective ELA/reading diagnostic assessments:

1. Diagnostic assessments should be designed to be administered “whole class.” While one-on-one time with a student is wonderful; it just isn’t a practical approach for teachers with class sizes pushing forty in many schools. I won’t throw the baby out with the bath water on this one. Individual assessments are sometimes necessary as double-checks or refinements, and an individual fluency assessment is a must for elementary, middle, and some high school students. However, my experience is that effective whole class diagnostic assessments can produce results that are just as reliable and prescriptive as the time-consuming individual assessments.

2. Diagnostic assessments should be brief. Despite the oft-repeated dictum, assessment is not really instruction.

3. Diagnostic assessments should be designed to  measure only what they purport to measure. For example, a diagnostic fluency assessment that produces  inaccurate  results because it uses unfamiliar terminology or difficult names is useless. A grammar assessment that pretends to measure correct  usage by having students match a past perfect participle to its definition does not accomplish its purpose.

4. Diagnostic assessments should measure important ELA/reading concepts or skills. Although we may disagree on a few of the details, few teachers would argue that assessing a student’s reading level is not as important as assessing a student’s ability to correctly name the four classifications of sentences.

5. Diagnostic assessments should help the teacher determine the relative strengths and weaknesses of the individual student, and not just those of the class. A teacher needs more information than simply what to emphasize in instruction or what to re-teach to “most” of the class.

6. Diagnostic assessments should be quantitative. Although qualitative assessment, such as a class discussion, is useful to inform direct instruction, internally and externally valid and reliable assessments that produce hard numbers  provide objective baselines for instruction, and guide later formative and summative assessments.

7. Diagnostic assessments should be designed to measure academic skills and abilities within our control. Although cognitive ability, family background, culture, socio-economic status, and language certainly impact what students know, these important variables are beyond the scope of useful diagnostic assessments. We need diagnostic assessments that won’t  isolate these variables. For example, a diagnostic assessment  that measures only the phonetic regularities common to English and Spanish, ignores those sound-spellings exclusive to English that all students need to master. Or as a further example, knowing that there is a racial/ethnic achievement gap in ELA/reading is of less value than knowing the specific components of a literacy gap that teachers can effectively address.

8. Diagnostic assessments should be easy to grade and record. Teachers need to spend their prep times using data to inform their instruction, and less time on correction and paperwork. Well-designed assessments can be multiple choice or matching. Recording matrices need to be designed so that they are simple to use, analyze, and plan for differentiated instruction.

9. Diagnostic assessments should be designed to help teachers inform their instruction. Teachers need specificity. If a teacher cannot teach to the data gained from the assessment, of what use is the assessment? For example, complicated and time-consuming normed reading comprehension assessments provide little instructional practicality. Other than individual reading levels, which can be gained from simple word recognition tests, fluencies, or even the self-administered “five finger method,” knowing the degree to which a student can “draw conclusions” does little to impact instruction. Of course, we need to teach those skills measured by reading comprehension tests or the annual standardized test, but we waste time using diagnostic assessments to glean this data, when we will teach these skills to all of our students anyway.

10. Diagnostic assessments should be comprehensive and not random samples. Qualitative spelling inventories, reading tests, phonics tests, grammar tests, mechanics tests, and vocabulary tests that are based on random samples of skills can only help teachers identify an approximate ability/developmental level or that a student has problems in that instructional area. By their very nature, random sample tests are “missing” something. Good diagnostic assessments are designed to quantify everything that needs to be learned in the particular area of focus.

Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Science of Reading Intervention Program

Pennington Publishing provides two reading intervention program options for ages eight–adult. The Teaching Reading Strategies (Intervention Program) is a full-year, 55 minutes per day program which includes both word recognition and language comprehension instructional resources (Google slides and print). The word recognition components feature the easy-to-teach, interactive 5 Daily Google Slide Activities: 1. Phonemic Awareness and Morphology 2. Blending, Segmenting, and Spelling 3. Sounds and Spelling Independent Practice 4. Heart Words Independent Practice 5. The Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables 1ith comprehension and word fluency practice for older readers. The program also includes sound boxes and personal sound walls for weekly review.  The language comprehension components feature comprehensive vocabulary, reading fluency, reading comprehension, spelling, writing and syntax, syllabication, reading strategies, and game card lessons, worksheets, and activities. Word Recognition × Language Comprehension = Skillful Reading: The Simple View of Reading and the National Reading Panel Big 5.

If you only have time for a half-year (or 30 minutes per day) program, the The Science of Reading Intervention Program features the 5 Daily Google Slide Activities, plus the sound boxes and personal word walls for an effective word recognition program.

PREVIEW TEACHING READING STRATEGIES and THE SCIENCE OF READING INTERVENTION PROGRAM RESOURCES HERE for detailed product description and sample lessons.

FREE DOWNLOADS TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING RESOURCES: The SCRIP (Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict) Comprehension Strategies includes class posters, five lessons to introduce the strategies, and the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic ELA and Reading Assessments FREE Resource:

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