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What Do Standardized Reading Tests Really Measure?

Rebecca Schmidt
Each April, all 3rd through 5th graders in my school take the DC-CAS—a standardized, summative assessment of grade-level skills in reading and math. It is a grueling eight-day test paralyzing the entire PK-5 community—limiting movement, resource classes, even recess. DC Public Schools uses the results (and administrative evaluations) to determine if our students are learning and if we are effectively teaching.

Assessing student learning and progress each year is important: All students should have the same opportunities to learn and succeed and we educators need to know if our teaching is helping our students develop needed knowledge and skills. Standardized assessment is one (albeit imperfect) way to help us fine-tune our practice, and hold schools and teachers accountable for student learning. However, DC-CAS (and four benchmark tests before April) have my students reading, calculating, and bubbling circles for over 16 days each year—almost a month of school.

With so much time devoted to these tests, and so much riding on them, it's a shame they paint a grossly incomplete picture of student success in our classrooms. The DC-CAS and benchmark tests are helpful and illustrative in math, yet are not true measures of student achievement or teacher effectiveness in reading. Math—being a collection of discrete skills and explicit processes used to arrive at specific answers—lends itself to measurement using the DC-CAS. I can tell if my students struggle with geometry but not measurement, for example. Reading is more holistic. More helpful to examine is our students' reading progress through the year—doing so gives a clearer picture of student learning and teacher effectiveness.

Like many in DC, my 3rd grade class entered with a range of reading abilities. Students read on level A (pre-readers) to above T (5th grade). Even with 1.5 years of growth within a year, a student entering at level C (end of Kindergarten) would only be level K (mid 2nd grade) by the end of the year. That's tons of progress, but not close enough to the end of 3rd grade reading level (P) required for even a chance of success on the DC-CAS.

It's difficult for teachers to celebrate success or respond to failure on DC-CAS or benchmark reading tests. Unlike the math tests, the standardized reading tests don't tell us what reading skills our students have mastered or not. They merely confirm what we already know about our students: Those who can read on a 3rd grade level do well, those that can't, don't. I already know that information, without DC-CAS, benchmark tests, or missing recess.

Our time in school is precious. Student assessment is crucial to improving teaching and learning, but only when the results are relevant and useful to teachers and learners.

Rebecca Schmidt is in her fifth year of teaching in D.C. Public Schools.

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