March 25, 2013

Where Reading Assessments Fail

Being that I work in a charter school, my administration is very data-driven. They're constantly throwing out numbers at us and asking us to report numbers to them. Then, a couple times a year, just for good measure, they pull us into meetings with our CEO where we have to justify our data. Teachers are asked to outline what we're doing to address the GLEs that have not yet been mastered and how what extra measures we're taking for our lowest students.

The GLE tracker is somewhat a joke for ELA, at least at the 8th grade level, which is highly focused on reading comprehension. Our unit tests and other major assessments are created by our department heads to be aligned to the state test. The problem? They require students to be able to read at grade level.

So, at each meeting, when I'm asked how I use this data, I honestly tell them that I only use it for reporting purposes. It does not inform my instruction because it doesn't accurately measure whether or not my students understand the standards; it only addresses their reading comprehension over and over again. And I already know my students don't read on grade level. I have plenty of data on that!

At my last meeting, my CEO and principal asked me how we can better track ELA (because all of the ELA teachers in my building are reporting this same issue). I told them that if they want to measure the standard, they need to level the reading so students can comprehend the texts.

The problem, though, is that the state standardized tests are exactly the same. It's not a new article, but I just came across There's No Such Thing As a Reading Test, and I feel like shouting from the rooftops, "This is exactly what I've been saying all along!"

Even if the reading level is appropriate, I have no way of knowing the content. This, of course, is a problem because I can't possibly build my students' background knowledge on everything in the world. What I mean by this is that on a science test, all of the reading passages should cover the content in the GLEs. Teachers had an entire school year to build that knowledge and define the appropriate vocabulary. Same for social studies. In ELA, however, my standards include teaching students how to read. And there's no good way to measure that on a standardized test.

The following excerpt from the text demonstrates what I mean:

You have spent the year learning and practicing reading strategies. Your teacher, worried about her performance, has relentlessly hammered test-taking strategies for months.
The test begins, and the very first passage concerns the customs of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. You do not know what a custom is; neither do you know who the Dutch were, or even what a colony is. You have never heard of Amsterdam, old or new. Certainly it's never come up in class. Without background knowledge, you struggle with most of the passages on the test. You never had a chance. 
So, if you don't perform well on this test, does it mean that you can't read? No! Does it mean your ELA teacher is ineffective and unworthy of a job? Of course not! It means the test is flawed. And that's why both teachers and students need better measures of success!

(Tune in tomorrow for a Tuesday Teacher Tip on how to start tackling this issue in your classroom!)

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