Slice of Life: The Power of Assessments

Assessments are powerful tools. Consider medical tests. Used appropriately they can be lifesaving. Used inappropriately, they can be misleading and lead to painful misdiagnosis. The same is true for reading assessments.

My students have been been schooled to be careful, questioning readers. Speed has been discouraged. Their reading assessments to date have rewarded thoughtful responses, both spoken and written. They are used to conferring with a teacher to express their thinking. This is what they believe is expected of them as readers. This is what they think reading is.

My district has recently required a new reading assessment. I had never done this type of assessment before and the majority of my students had no recollection of taking this kind of a test.

The assessment measures reading fluency over three passages with a quick retell at the end. The emphasis is on speed: the number of words read and spoken in the retell.

Results aren’t complete, but what I have noticed is how quickly students adjust to expectations. In the first passage they would read at their typical, careful pace. When stopped at the minute mark they were startled and felt they needed to complete the piece to be able to understand it. Retelling the story was difficult and frustrating for them. After all they hadn’t finished the text.

By the third read, students’ speed increased markedly. Their years of learning how readers should read was abandoned for what was expected, speed. With that speed they got further in the text, but their comprehension was at best on the surface. They could recount details, but synthesis of ideas was limited.

In just six minutes (the time allowed to read and retell three passages) their behavior as readers changed. Whoa! Do they learn fast.

As much as I told them not to worry, you could see the concern in their faces. They could see their scores come up on the iPad screen.

“What does green mean? Is that good?”

They probably felt like the patient in the doctor’s office with all the blinking lights and numbers. Thinking, am gonna be ok?

I try to reassure them. I tell them reading is not about speed. Reading is thinking and thinking takes time. Don’t worry about this, I say.  Go back to your book, hoping they forget the entire experience.

When I found out I had to do this assessment I was irritated because of the time taken away from instruction. After testing them, I am more disturbed by their reactions to the assessment.

When we test students we send a message. We are telling them this is what matters. You’d better be good at this.

Fortunately, my students went back to their books, and I will go back to teaching them that reading is thinking and that takes time. I also walk on with the knowledge that the assessments we give students send powerful expectations and should be given with care..

Thank you to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara at Two Writing Teachers blog for Tuesday Slice of Life. Share your own and r11454297503_e27946e4ff_head more slices here.

23 thoughts on “Slice of Life: The Power of Assessments

  1. Such a powerful piece of documentation about the student as patient. Are their needs being considered by those to write these tests. Reading and writing processes demand the time and love you fuel them with. Test creators need to be educators. Why this need for speed?

  2. Jen! I’ve been wrestling with the same things this week and actually blogged about it today as well. One li’l friend said to me, “So I should just read fast right?” NO! No you should not! I’m excited to get back into my classroom today to meet with kids and get lost in text together. I’ve been mulling the idea of assessments that matter. Best of luck to you. Your kids are so lucky to have you as a teacher. You know what matters most.

    • So interesting their reactions! No not fast! Love that excitement to get back to to get lost in text. I’m sure they share that excitement. Lucky kids…

  3. I’m glad to hear that you as the teacher noticed what was happening. It sounds as if you’ve been such a thoughtful teacher of reading, teaching “slow”, helping students look for the “nuggets” in the reading. I noted this: “When we test students we send a message.” I hope that they’ll listen to you that that new test is something someone thought would be a good idea, they should give it a go, & then forget it.

  4. Every word you write speaks the truth. Assessemnts like this are a thorn in the education of kids. Hopefully administrators will discover these tests don’t provide the information they were seeking. Yay to you and your kids going back to real reading!

  5. It is troubling to consider the unintended consequences of these assessments. What of students who grow up with them from the start? And what of their teachers who learn to consider reading IS this kind of speedy “fluency”? Thank you for sharing your experience. The picture you paint made my heart ache for your students. The implications ripple on…

  6. My heart kind of sinks when I read this – we begin “PARCC prep” next week. But – the good news is that good readers with great instruction, know they can adapt.

  7. I have the same concerns as you. We started taking DIBELS when I taught 4th grade and the kids knew that speed was important to be “green” and “red” meant that you went to the reading lab and achieved that “label.” So disheartening. Now, that I teach 6th grade, we do the same kind of test but it is a different name…same candy bar but different package. I understand the need to assess fluency, but it does go against everything we teach them when it comes to real reading assessment.

  8. It is not one of our favorite assessments…. we too find that students quickly figure out what we are looking for and rise to the occasion. If you have to give it, we find that it helps to talk with kids about the assessment before – its purpose, what it does and does not tell us, why rate matters, when rate doesn’t matter and how you will triangulate it with other sources to help you know what they need and don’t need to learn. When kids know we find the anxiety goes down. They understand and have control over the process. It also keeps it all in perspective.
    Thanks for sharing – your students are very fortunate to have you as their teacher.

    • Thank you so much–beautiful advice! Isn’t it interesting how quickly they respond. I love what you are saying here. Letting kids know exactly what is going on and how it will be used makes so much sense. It is only fair that they we explain the purpose. Too often kids are done to. Helping them understand why, gives them power.

  9. So much damage can be done in just a few minutes. It often takes hours to undo such damage, but I’m grateful for thoughtful teachers who are willing to go the distance to preserve the joy of reading.

  10. As an interventionist I help students unlearn reading way too fast and begin to think about and understand what they’re reading. After several years of Dibels, Rigby and timed “fluency” tests from Pearson’s Treasures series, these 4th and 5th graders are crippled readers.
    It isn’t a matter of three minutes to undo all the damage this misguided approach has done.
    Fluency has 6 dimensions. RATE is only one of them. The point of measuring wpm over a passage is to ensure that the reader is neither reading too slowly nor too quickly. My intervention students clock in around 400 wpm initially then with work – get expressively fluent reads closer to 200 wpm. And they understand so much more.
    Your post is beautifully written, but I’m upset over this assessment.

  11. This is so frustrating, Julieanne! I know this assessment, but only use it for certain students as one piece of progress monitoring. Administering it to a whole class is such a waste of time, not to mention disheartening for everyone.

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