Taking care when using assessment data to make instructional decisions

I’ve spent most of today providing feedback on my MA in Reading students’ Literacy Instructional Plans (LIP). The LIP is essentially a case study in which my students select one K-12 student and:

  1. Administer 3-5 literacy assessments.
  2. Analyze the assessment data to determine instructional needs.
  3. Review and synthesize literature related to the area of instructional need.
  4. Make instructional recommendations for the student.

For the most part, my students use standardized assessment data (FCAT, FAIR, SAT-10), coupled with informal reading inventories for this assignment. And, for the most part, they are able to complete the steps listed above and articulate reasonable and appropriate instructional strategies.

However, three things stand out to me about the analyses:

  1. The area in which a child tests lowest is not necessarily an area in which the child “struggles.” This word is thrown around all too often, and can have negative implications on children’s literate development. A child in the fall of grade two, who is testing at a level 1.6 is not generally defined a “struggling” reader in the literature, but in schools these results are often considered dire. And rather than seeing the area of lowest assessment scores as the child’s ability foundation on which to begin instruction, I see it looked upon as a deficit to be overcome. It may seem semantically insignificant, but the labels and language we attach to children have great implications for their development.
  2. If we know a child is reading below grade level, but then assess them with grade level text, we should not be surprised at the results of the assessment. Of course the child will find the text difficult to read and comprehend. That is why we assess to determine their reading level, so we can provide them with appropriate reading materials in order to accelerate their development as readers and writers. It should also mean that we are assessing their growth with materials that match their reading level.
  3. If we know a child is reading below grade level, but then assess them with grade level text, we should take great care in using those results to make instructional decisions. I read one LIP in which my student indicated that the child she was assessing was now showing evidence of weaknesses in comprehension she didn’t know were there – so she was glad she’d given the child the 3rd grade assessment. However, the child was reading (on every assessment discussed) around early second grade. So, we actually can’t determine that the child is struggling with comprehension, because so many other factors are at play when children are being assessed using materials that are outside their reading abilities.

Teaching and assessing reading is not easy. Developing the skills to be responsive teachers of reading takes time and careful attention to the way children develop as readers and writers. It takes nuanced understandings of assessments, instructional materials, and most importantly children. Continual assessment of children will not support their development unless they have teachers who are skilled at using those data and what we know about literacy instruction to make sound instructional decisions.