Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Beavis and Butthead Do Reading Assessments

Butthead: Hey Beavis, check out this stupid reading assessment.

Beavis: Yeah, heh heh. It’s like, really stupid.

Butthead: Why do stupid teachers spend so much time giving us these dumbass assessments? It’s not like they show everything.

Beavis: Yeah, heh heh, heh heh. That’s why it says ASS at the beginning of ASSESSMENT! Heh heh.

Butthead: No, you moron, you don’t pronounce it that way! And besides, assessments do show some stuff…like how much you get what you’re reading, and how many words you know…

Beavis: Yeah, but does it help you figure out how to get CHICKS? Heh heh…

Butthead: Shut up, Beavis! This is about reading assessments, and how teachers just hafta know that they can’t tell everything about a reader using just a bunch of stupid tests. Teachers are stupid.

Beavis: Yeah, heh heh, they're really stupid...

I’m sure that after I administer a series of reading assessments to my young teenage male students, they may have a dialogue sort of like this one going on in their heads. Mind you, I do not think teachers as a whole are stupid, but sometimes, to be smart at our game, we need to consider what our reading assessments don’t tell us as much as what they do. Sometimes teachers (and administrators, and districts) focus too much on assessment, effectively inundating students with redundancy and repetition without considering how much value lies in the result, and to what extent the result will be used to inform instruction. Teachers need to be aware of the inherent limitations of assessment results.

Different reading tests measure different skills. That must be why I have a forest’s worth of reading assessment materials on multiple bookshelves in my classroom. Being new to the gig of “reading specialist/Title I Teacher,” I have taken my boss’ instructions to heart to focus significantly on the DAR (Diagnostic Assessment of Reading) as one of my primary assessment tools. The DAR offers data on student performance in the following areas: print concepts, phonological awareness, letters and sounds, word recognition, word analysis, oral reading, silent reading comprehension, spelling, word meaning, and fluency.

Results of DAR tests have given me good jumping-off points for instruction. I have used them to create lessons and activities that my students seem genuinely interested in. All of my students have made steady progress on periodic testing using the DAR. Then again, wouldn’t we expect fluency scores to increase the more a student reads and rereads the same 100-word passage over time? I’d imagine pretty much every kid would get at least somewhat more familiar with and read with more accuracy the passages by sight and by sound. I’ve also wondered to myself: what do I do with these fluency scores, aside from placing them on each student’s IRP form and showing it to my boss when she comes to observe me? Not that much at all.

Except for this: the one useful thing I use these fluency scores for is motivation, which is not an aspect of reading ability I can measure using DAR or any other kind of test, yet we educators know that this is the biggest key to reading success. I make it a point to show these scores to my students in an effort to point out to them that they’re making great progress, and they don’t have to take my word for it. They can see it in black and white. I’ve seen kids sit up straighter, strut around the room, even brag openly to their peers about how they’ve made great strides in K-Bizzle’s reading workshop. They take more pride in their reading and they’re generally more invested in the learning process.

The DAR, as well as other similar assessments, might not always bring out the best effort in a student. And in this setting, plenty of my kids have an automatic bias against anything that smells like a test. In order for them to buy into what I’m trying to sell, many of my kids have to have a genuine interest in the material in front of them. The DAR doesn’t necessarily bring out everyone’s A-game. So will my results be reliable?

While the DAR and other reading assessments offer a lens through which to “see” our readers, we teachers have to keep it all in perspective and not let assessments cloud our view of the big picture. The overarching theme I try to promote in my classroom is that reading brings joy, so I try to toss at least a little joy into the lesson every day. My students – and thank God they’re not as challenging as Beavis and Butthead – all tell me they like reading more now than they used to. Wow. And they had to come to jail to realize it.

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