July 8, 2015

Assessment in Literacy: Where Should We Look?

Assessment: formative assessment, summative assessment, universal screeners, benchmarks, anecdotal observations, state tests, etc., etc., etc.  There are a million different types of it, so how are we as educators supposed to know how to take all of these different data points about students and use this massive amount of information to know where to go in our instruction?  As a literacy coach, one of the items in my job description is to organize literacy data.  After being in this position for three years, and teaching Language Arts for all seven years of my teaching career, I can honestly say that there hasn't been a year where we have looked at literacy data the same.  This is a subject that I have shied away from blogging too much about because it is always changing, and every district looks at literacy data in different ways.  In this blog post, I'm going to attempt to articulate my thoughts on how I look at literacy data in an educational atmosphere where data is all over the place.

Benchmark Assessment:  Whether your district uses the QRI, DRA, or F&P's Benchmark Assessment, it is so important to start your year off looking at who your students are as readers.  In my district, we use Fountas and Pinnell's Benchmark Assessment.  I treasure the time at the beginning of the year listening to my students read and analyzing what is going well for them as a reader and what they will need to work on throughout the school year.  This assessment lays my foundation for planning out guided reading, literature circles, and Reading Worskhop minilessons.  It is also a chance for me to be one-on-one with a students and to deeply understand where they are at with their fluency, if they self monitor their reading, what types of words trip them up, if they understand what they read, and where in their comprehension (within, beyond, and about) they are strong and weak.  Taking the time to do benchmarks sometimes gets a bad rap.

People say that it takes too much time out of their instruction to complete the benchmarks.  There is no doubt that doing benchmarks on each student takes time, but the analogy that I use to think about why it's important to take the time is the thought of going to the grocery store with and without a list.  If I go without, I wander the aisles aimlessly, buying things I don't need only to get home and realize that I bought doubles of what I already had while forgetting other essentials that will probably require me to go BACK to the grocery store.  On the other hand, taking the time to make a list before going to the grocery store, checking the fridge and my cupboards, can be time consuming and slightly annoying, but once I get to the grocery store I am focused and efficient, buying what I need while getting in and then out.  Doing benchmark assessment with your students versus not doing benchmark assessments with your students at the beginning of the year is the same thing.  Doing a benchmark assessment is like writing up your grocery list.  You know where to go with students because you know who they are as readers.  Not doing a benchmark at the beginning of the year is like not making the list, you may work with the student at things they are already strong in as readers while missing vital pieces that they need and/or instructing them at an inappropriate guided reading level all together.  Students don't magically make growth as readers without expert teachers who take the time to make the grocery list and know where to go without wandering aimlessly.

Benchmarks can be used the wrong way.  If a teacher is doing them just to do them and get a level, they are only being used to a fraction of the magnificent tool that they are.  When used right, a teacher is starting the school year out with taking a huge first step in knowing their students as readers.  This is the foundation of putting the assessment tools together.  Click here to check out my "Benchmark Assessment Helpers" to help you gather the data you need to make the best use out of this fabulous assessment tool.

Universal Screeners:  Once again, there are a ton of them out there: STAR, MAPS, etc.  My district uses the STAR assessment, and it's a great way to get some initial data on students and monitor their growth over time.  It is a data point that, combined with other data points, can move a teacher forward in helping to paint the picture of students as readers.  Universal screeners can be dangerous because they are seemingly easy data points to get and clear cut data points to understand.  In the world of literacy, however, I feel we have to be VERY careful to not use universal screeners to drive our instruction, shove students into a reading intervention that isn't appropriate for them, or use this piece of data as the one and only piece to look at during data meetings.  It's an important piece in the data picture, but it's just that: one piece.  As literacy teachers, coaches, and coordinators, we have to continually educate others who want to see this as the only data piece that many more pieces are required to complete the puzzle.

Classroom Assessments: Exit slips, students' writing about reading, writing pieces, quizzes, student self-assessments, etc.   All of the assessments done at the classroom level are SO important.  No matter what a test says about who a student is as a reader or writer, classroom assessments are the consistent evidence that teachers need to look at to truly get to know their students as readers and monitor their progress over time.  As a classroom teacher, when deciding what to grade/what not to grade, I usually ask myself the question: Will this help me learn more about this student as a reader/writer?  If the answer is no, I don't grade it.  If the answer is yes, I do.  When grading writing especially, I love to keep a sheet of paper by me with three columns: Individuals, Small Groups, Whole Class.  As I'm reading their writing, I'm also jotting down teaching points to check in with individual students during writing conferences, guided writing topics for small groups of students, and big things that I am seeing a majority of my class do that would make for awesome whole class minilessons in Writing Workshop.  Consistent, clear rubrics are also key to comparing students data over time and also comparing students data with other literacy classes in your grade level.  Another piece of classroom assessments that often gets overlooked is having students complete self-assessments periodically to know how they view themselves as readers and writers.  When students believe their voices are being heard, it's amazing what they will reveal in these to help teachers better understand them and how to instruct them.

Anecdotal Notes:  When I do get the chance to work with students in small groups during guided reading/guided writing and one-on-one during reading and writing conferences, I try to take meaningful anecdotal notes that will help me determine best next steps for these students as readers and writers.  This also includes reading records.  Anecdotal notes should be and are essential to quality data meetings on students.  It is the hard evidence of what students are able to do inside a classroom as readers and writers on a daily basis.

All the Other Stuff: State tests are a part of our reality in the education world.  That's just how it is.  I'm not going to spend much time writing about them in this blog post because I don't spend much time worrying about them during the school year.  I believe that if you're using the assessments that I mentioned above in a meaningful way to inform your instruction, then your students should be independent thinkers who believe in themselves as readers and writers.  Therefore, the test should go okay.  End of story.  I feel sad for states like New York where this is not their reality, but that is a whole separate blog post.

Here is my bottom line with this blog post: we need it all.  As educators, we need to know where each piece of assessment fits into the big picture.  We also need to know when a certain type of assessment is overpowering other types, or when some of the most important types of assessment are being overlooked.  If data meetings are all about looking at universal screener data and state test data, then I doubt you're talking much about who the student actually is, what reading/writing behaviors he/she exhibits, next steps for that student, etc.  And if you are only looking at those data points and talking about these things, I would argue that you are making important decisions using only a few pieces of the puzzle.  TEACHERS are the most important piece of the data conversation.  The knowledge you hold in your heads about students as readers and writers based on administering the benchmark, spending time with students in guided reading and guided writing, conferencing with them, and reading their work on formative assessments on a consistent basis is the most important source of data.  It won't be found on a computer system or specialized school report.  It's found in the heads of the people who work with students day in and day out.


23 comments :

  1. Hi Kasey,
    I think you're right on target about making sure we collect data, but then being very careful about how we use it. Some data points seem like they give us good information, but it takes a combination of some kind of assessment WITH watching/hearing our kids read and comprehend to make an informed decision. It's a lot of work at the beginning of the year, but well worth it!

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment! I think you and I are definitely on the same page. It does seem like a TON of work at the beginning of the year, but in the end it's well worth it.

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  2. You continue to astound me with your insight and practical application in the classroom. As a second year middle school ELA teacher, I can't quit devouring your blog! Thank you!

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    1. Oh, you are so welcome! It truly does make my heart happy to know that my blog is helpful to teachers, especially teachers just starting out. Thanks you so much for reading and for your comment!

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  3. Hi Kasey, I was wondering if you feel that you are able to see growth when you benchmark kids in grades 6 and up using the F&P benchmark assessment? My school has the K-2 kit and when I taught 2nd grade I found it so valuable. I can also see how valuable it would be for my struggling 6th-grade readers, but what about those kids that read at level Z already? Do you find this a valuable resource for them? I'm really advocating purchasing this for my school but want to know advantages to benchmarking with this for those readers at the higher levels. Thanks so much! I really love your blog.

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    1. Hi Deb,

      That is such an awesome question, and I'm definitely going to edit this blog post to address it. At my school we do not use F&P benchmark to benchmark students who have "Z'd out." What I do like to do, however, is still listen to Z level and beyond students read a Z+ level book out loud to me and use a reading record format to get notes about the students fluency and other reading behaviors. I still find it helpful to listen to all of my students read, even though the Z'd out students take only a tiny fraction of the time as doing the full benchmark on other students. I would highly recommend using benchmark even in middle school. There will be plenty of students who are not at a Z level in middle school, and it is such a helpful tool so that you know where to instruct these students at. I hope this answers your question, and thank you so much for reading and responding to my blog!

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  4. Hi Kasey,
    I have been a Literacy Coach for a year and a half, and I am so glad that I discovered your blog today. Your ideas about assessment ring true. Our school uses the F & P benchmarking system to assess our students' reading levels. The area that we fall short is looking at the information about the type of readers that the students are regarding strengths and weakness (within, beyond, about) when then interact with text. I think that with the other assessments that our district conducts (DIBELS, benchmarks) they are inundated with data that does not get the time for reflection that is needed. Then we end up with the shopping list scenario. Students are placed in guided reading groups purely based on their reading level.
    As a coach this year, I am making it one of my many missions to take the time to look at, analyze, reflect upon, and develop plans for student data and work samples.
    Your insight is great! Thanks.

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    1. Gregelle,

      I'm so happy that you found my blog as well. It seems that we have very similar viewpoints on this topic! I know exactly what you mean when you say "one of your many missions." It is such an important one though because if we can't start connecting the pieces of the puzzle between all of the tasks that teachers do (lesson planning, giving assessments to students, curriculum mapping, etc. etc. etc.) we are going to lose the point in it all!

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  5. Kasey,
    Thank you for your insights and for "breaking down" the practical purpose for each of these assessment types. One of my big goals for this year is to administer better assessments, or I should say, learn how to develop a way to efficiently wade through all the assessments I must administer. I am going into a year where I will teach one grade level again (first time in my six-year career that I get to repeat a grade level- 6th, Language Arts!), one grade level for the first time (7th) and one elective. I will have about 80 students altogether. I am trying to develop initial assessments that are on a Google Form, then linked to a Google Sheet which can then, hopefully, be quantified more easily. My question to you is: Do you think that choosing this method for initial beginning of year assessments is a viable way to gauge reading and comprehension levels for my students? I plan to couple these assessments together with my anecdotal knowledge ( I am looping with half of my students) and a writing sample or two. Do you think this plan will give me the kind of information necessary to gain significant and usable data for the year?
    Thanks for any help you can offer here.

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    1. I think the fact that you have a plan and are concerned with taking the assessments you're required to administer from your district and make it into meaningful data that you're able to use to inform your instruction is a great starting point. Having quantified data is a great place to start. From there, you can easily target students you need to know more about with more anecdotal data and move forward from there. You're off to a great start. I would love to hear more about what you end up doing and how it works out for you!

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  6. Kasey,
    Next year I will have an average of 38 students per class. I have downloaded and planned on using your Reading and Writing Workshop Kick-off Lessons, but I really don't see the time for Individual benchmark assessments with so many students. We have 90 minute block periods. I plan on splitting them into two for each period. Any ideas you have would be helpful. Thank you!

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    1. Hi Leslie,
      In our district we are given two sub days at the beginning of the year to complete the benchmarks. This way it is a not a long, drawn-out process that takes up too much time. I would suggest talking to your principal to see if this could be an option. Otherwise, if it's not, my advice would be to target your lowest readers and make sure you get benchmarks from them at the minimum so that you can formulate a plan on how you are best going to fill their weaknesses as the school year progresses.

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  7. Kasey,
    I am new to literacy coaching this year and will be doing so for 7th and 8th graders who are struggling in the regular classroom, but are not classified students. I have been teaching pull -out Language Arts (7th and 8th) in the resource room for the past 5 years. My role right now is student intervention and less teacher coach. I plan to use the F and P assessment on all the kids I will see to get an idea of strengths and needs, reading fluency, etc, Do you use the writing piece of the assessment also? And how do you structure lessons from there? Thanks so much. Great blog.

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    1. Hi Lauren,

      I do not use the writing piece of the assessment, but if you have time to do so with smaller groups of intervention students, I think it's a great additional source of data. After I benchmark all of my students, I group them into groups that make sense by level and also by strengths and weaknesses as readers. From there, I use the information I found about them to do guided reading or LLI. I hope you have a great school year in your new role as literacy coach! I love connecting with other literacy coaches!

      Kasey

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  8. Sorry, my name is Lauren. I'm not sure why I can up as anonymous.

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  9. Hello there! My name is Tonia, and I am currently teaching in a village in the North Slope. I have students in the 8th grade reading on a 3rd-5th grade reading level. What would you suggest for motivating them to want to learn to become better readers ?

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    1. I would recommend finding texts that are high interest, low reading level for them. They need to find success with independent reading without feeling like they're reading "baby books." If you can get them to like to read and increase the time they spend reading, that would be a huge first step. With that large of a deficit, reading intervention (time spent in small groups on top of their class time) would also be necessary to close gaps. I love Fountas and Pinnell's Leveled Literacy Intervention Systems!

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  10. Do you have any data that you would be willing to share on the growth of students in grades 7-8? Our district is just beginning to explore and "toe-dip" with F&P and teachers are interested in research & data in these grades. I would also love to collect additional contacts for our teachers to collaborate with if anyone is willing to share contact information.

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    1. Hi Colleen,

      I'm a big believer in multiple means of assessment to look at data and not just relying on one source.

      Wisconsin has had a different state assessment for the last three years, so that data point is out since there is nothing to compare to.

      Last school year on our universal screener, STAR, a computer-based test on reading comprehension, our students 5-8 grew considerably from the beginning of the year to the end of the school year. Our goal was to have 80% of students meet or exceed their SGP (student growth percentile), and we met that goal at every grade level.

      We also use Fountas and Pinnell's benchmark assessment where we saw considerable growth from the students in our reading interventions school-wide.

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  11. Kasey -

    How long has your district been using Fountas & Pinnell benchmarking and Literacy Learning Continuum with middle school students (grades 7-8)?

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  12. Hi Colleen,

    This is our fourth year of implementation. All of our language arts teachers have taken the 40 hour initial training PD, and the follow up 20 hour ongoing PD in the second year of implementation. As a teacher who has now taught this way for four years across multiple middle school grade levels, I will say that it was tricky at first but clicks more and more each year. I would never go back to novel units and whole class instruction again!

    Kasey

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  13. Hi Kasey,

    I purchased your writing and reading workshop kick off as well as the mini lessons. I tried your routine at the end of last year and I must say it went really well! I can't wait to try it from the beginning this year! I'm going into my 3rd year as a 6th grade ela teacher.

    My question to you is, where do you fit summative assessments in the classroom? I have seen your schedule for balancing reading and writing workshops and the formative assessments, but I am wondering how do your summative assessments look? Where do they fit? Our school is pushing for standards based grading and from experience, parents want to know what will be on the test, study guides, etc. Any help/guidance will be so appreciated!

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    1. Thanks so much for the feedback on how implementing the workshops went. The kick-off products took me an entire summer to create, but they have been so worth it because it is the foundation that will keep workshops running across the school year. I'm excited for you and your students to be able to start the year off with these routines and expectations.

      My school is transitioning to a standards-based grading approach over the next couple of years as well. To be completely honest with you, I understand what summative assessments are in math class. At the end of a unit, you give a test to see if students know the math concepts covered. But, what exactly are summative assessments in language arts, and how do we make sure summative assessments are authentic reflections of what we're teaching students as readers and writers? I think this is a bit more clear for writing as summative assessments are a final piece of writing. I've also done before where I will take an entire class period and ask students to write in the genre we just finished studying on a smaller scale as a summative assessment. For reading and the way the reading workshop is run, it gets trickier, but I don't think it's impossible. If minilessons are grouped into categories, and students are applying a series of minilessons to a guided reading book or a literature circles book, I think a summative assessment could be a test asking students to answer key questions about the minilessons in relation to their book. These are just a few ideas. As far as when they fit in. I think a summative assessment would replace the minilesson and work time for the day. This is why I stress how important it is to be authentic and also consider how to scale down assessments so that you get the information you need without killing the concept. These are just a few ideas, and I know I probably raised more questions than gave answers, but it's tricky territory, and we will definitely be learning together! :)

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