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This Assessment...Not That Assessment

Today's guest blog is written by Jennifer Serravallo, the author of numerous resources about assessment and instruction in reading including the best-selling Teaching Reading in Small Groups.

The spring weather we've all waited for is finally here, but, to our nation's teachers, April brings dread: testing season. Engaging, important curriculum is pushed aside for weeks to hone students' test-taking skills because, after all, student promotion and teachers' jobs depend on the scores. It's no wonder assessment has become a four-letter word.

There's a difference, though, between capital-A assessment - standardized tests - and lowercase-a assessment, classroom-based formative assessments. It's a shame people hear "assessment" and think "test," because good assessment is at the heart of effective classroom instruction It helps teachers to create goals for students give effective feedback, and measure progress over time. We need to reclaim the word assessment so that it means the kind of classroom-embedded practices that support instruction and learning.

Instead of the kind of reading assessment where kids are compelled to read short passages on disconnected topics and answer multiple choice questions, here's what I propose: Kids read real books. As they read, teachers ask them write about their thoughts and ideas, and comment on the main ideas, details, characters, plot, and vocabulary.

Teachers would then treat these responses as assessment, and would evaluate them to determine what they say about the skills students use--or don't yet use--as they read. Then teachers help students set goals, and teach them strategies they can apply again and again. Teachers meet with kids in ongoing conferences to give them feedback about their work with those strategies as students read more and more books of their own choosing. The information teachers get, and the progress they monitor, is shared with teachers and administration. This is the kind of accountability that makes a difference to student learning.

The whole point of assessment is to drive instruction. With capital-A, standardized test assessment, the results arrive in summer, too late for teachers to use the information. And even if they could, the reliability of the information is questionable at best. Studies have shown that tests are more likely to measure a student's family income level or amount of preparedness rather than the proficiencies they claim to. It's no wonder there's a groundswell of opposition to standardized assessment, with a robust opt-out movement and several states choosing to forego testing this year until the standardized test becomes more valid and reliable.

The most effective teachers I've met take a scientific stance to their practice, puzzling over students' every moves. They regard what students write, say, and do as data. They look at students' responses to real reading, and see that as data. Not the graph-it, chart-it kind of data that policy makers are so fond of, but the kind of information that informs a teacher's next lesson, comment, or prompt.

Does it make sense to have students read a list of nonsense words (wom, jep, zaff) when during the school day primary-grade students are reading real words in the context of real stories? Not to me. Does it make sense to ask students in grades three and up to read aloud short passages to record their accuracy rate when what kids are asked to do each day is select entire novels to read independently? Not to me. Does it make sense to spend days and weeks and months focused on filling in bubbles on multiple choice tests when being college and career ready means a person has to think critically and respond articulately in extended pieces of writing? Not to me.

My proposal is about holding ourselves accountable to what decades of research has shown us makes the biggest difference in student engagement and achievement in reading: giving kids lots of time absorbed with books they can read with accuracy, fluency and comprehension. I want assessments to be a regular part of the school day, and for assessments to look just like what we want kids to practice. If we give kids time to read real, whole books independently and we support them with conferring and opportunities to write about and discuss their reading, then assessments should ask them to read real, whole books, too.

If there's one thing teachers always struggle with, it's how to "fit it all in." In an already too-short school day, asking teachers and their students to spend time on test prep when they could be really reading, thinking critically, and conversing about texts with peers, is a waste. Let's count students' everyday, authentic work as "assessment" and spend our time teaching.

 Connect with Jennifer on Twitter.

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