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Right to Read

Margaret Goldberg

Margaret Goldberg is the co-founder of Right to Read Project, a group of teachers, researchers, and activists committed to the pursuit of equity through literacy. Margaret serves as a literacy coach in a large urban district in California and was formerly a classroom teacher and curriculum developer. All posts are reprinted with permission from the Right to Read Project. Follow the Right to Read Project on Twitter.

Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System: Doesn’t Look Right, Sound Right, or Make Sense

September 23, 2019

My district, like so many others, uses Fountas and Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) as the primary measure of student reading progress. But if you’ve had doubts about the assessment and the ways BAS data is often used, you’re on to something…

Limited materials

An F&P Benchmark Assessment System kit provides us with only two books (one fiction and one nonfiction) for each reading level, so we end up using the books over and over again. We see the problem with these limited materials when struggling readers memorize the predictable texts or get stuck because they lack the background knowledge required by the two books at a particular level. 

Heinemann has issued three editions of the assessment but has yet to produce any additional texts. Providing more assessment books is challenging because the texts are not authentic, but rather purpose-written assessment materials. Making more books available at a given level would call attention to leveling inconsistencies in the existing materials.

Leveling inconsistencies

Most of us instinctively know the books in BAS are not consistent at a given level and not progressively difficult across levels. In fact, we select strategically from the book choices. I’ve heard colleagues say, “I use the Loose Tooth book because it’s a lot easier than the one about the zoo.” (both Level E) or “I skip G and go straight to H.”

The Common Core recommends that we use objective measures (Lexile, Dale-Chall, and Flesch-Kincaid are cited in CCSS Appendix A) to evaluate text complexity. Due to lack of transparency about its formula, the F&P leveling system is notably absent in CCSS recommendations.

Lexile, cited repeatedly in CCSS appendices, analyzes written text and the features that make it objectively complex, such as decodability, sentence length, word choice. According to Lexile, the BAS Level E book At the Zoo is more similar to the Level H book Trucks than to the companion Level E book provided in the assessment kit. An objective leveling system confirms our own hunches about the books.

Books more similar across reading levels than within

Selecting the BAS book The Zoo may lead us to believe that a student reads at Level E, but a closer look reveals that the same child might do just as well reading the Level H book, Trucks. These designations can mean the difference between a student being “at grade level” or “below grade level” and can impact the perception of a student’s ability, both for the student and for the teacher.

Time spent on the wrong things

While assessing using BAS, we listen to a student read and take ”Reading Records” that we’re later expected to analyze in order to determine which of three sources of information – meaning, syntax, visual – the child used for word identification. This attention to the disproven three-cueing theory diverts our attention from the fact that an error is simply evidence that the child was unable to apply phonics to accurately read the word.

“Although oral-passage reading rate and accuracy are good measures of overall reading ability because they measure word-recognition speed and accuracy, the classification of ’miscues’ is unreliable, invalid, and a waste of the teacher’s time.”

Whole Language Lives On

Assessing students with BAS takes approximately 20 minutes per student, but more reliable oral reading fluency assessments take just 1 minute.

While there are other issues to consider in terms of establishing instructional reading levels, in terms of reliability, it may make more sense to focus on more technically sound procedures available. It may be surprising to many teachers that some of the most valid and reliable measures of a student’s overall reading level include simple measures of word-recognition accuracy and speed, in and out of context (Rasinski, 2000; Torgesen, Wagner, Rashotte, Burgess, & Hecht, 1997). 

Toward the Peaceful Coexistence of Test Developers, Policy Makers, and Teachers

Listening to students read is important for many reasons, but the books and scoring sheets provided in the BAS are not worthy of the time we’re asked to devote to them.

“Typical” students?

According to Heinemann, the Benchmark Assessment System was field-tested on “typical students,” but they included in their study only proficient English students who were already reading at grade level (and very few of them at that!) By excluding diverse learners from their study, Heinemann ignored the demographics of our classrooms and missed important factors in determining text difficulty. 

The books in the assessment represent experiences typical of middle class children (eg. sleepovers and trips to the farm). Pictures in the books allow some students to cue for words (eg. climbing and snow plow), while students without that background knowledge and vocabulary must sound the words out.

Basal 1 reading record

The book Trucks is not a good indicator of whether an English-learner will be able to read other books labeled H by Fountas and Pinnell because it is written in present tense and is more decodable (despite snow plow!), even when compared to the other BAS Level H book, which includes tricky-to-decode irregular past-tense verbs.

“Educators are on shaky ground when a test is used in a way or for a purpose other than that for which it was intended. If a test has been developed specifically for a certain population (eg. preschool students, native English speakers) then it is imperative that the test be used solely for those it was designed to assess.”

Toward the Peaceful Coexistence of Test Developers, Policy Makers, and Teachers

Contradictions between the authors and their product

Say we were to use the assessment only on proficient English speakers who are reading at grade level and we ignored the miscue analysis, could BAS work then? 

Well, work to do what?

Attempting to use the data collected from BAS has led many of us to make instructional decisions Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell have spoken against:

What BAS Data Tells Us: What Fountas and Pinnell Say:
“He reads at level H.” “The truth is that children can read books on a wide variety of levels, and in fact, they experience many different levels of books across the day.”
A child who reads a Level G book about bubbles during the assessment will be able to read Level G books about polar bears, friendship, and transportation. “… we have decades of research that demonstrates the extent to which students’ vocabulary knowledge relates to their reading comprehension.” 
If a child does well on one level, she should be assessed on the next. “A gradient is not a precise sequence through which all students move. […] You may want to skip a level if you feel the students need even more challenge.”
It’s important that a student moves up levels over time. “The point is not simply to ‘move up’ levels but to increase their breadth of reading by applying their strategies to many different kinds of texts.”
After each student’s reading level has been determined, students of like levels should be grouped together. “A gradient is not and was never intended to be a way to categorize or label students, whose background experiences and rate of progress will vary widely. We have never written about leveling students.”
A student’s reading level should be communicated to the child so she can select “just right books.” “We certainly never intended that children focus on a label for themselves in choosing books in classroom libraries. Classroom libraries need to be inviting places where children are drawn to topics and genres and authors and illustrators that they love. And while students are choosing books that interest them, the teacher is there to help them learn how to make good choices so the books they select are ones that they can read and enjoy. If a child chooses a book that is too hard for them to read, they may stretch themselves and enjoy that book for a period of time.”
The data from the assessment should be used to determine what leveled books are needed in the classroom library and which students should read which books. “Organizing books by level does not help students engage with books and pursue their own interests.”

Fountas and Pinnell have stated, repeatedly, that a leveling system is simply a tool for a teacher to use to match students with books. But district administrators love the assessment because it generates data that seems easy to understand (“a Level H reader is more skilled than a Level E reader”) and appears actionable (“Label and level your library and have students pick from the right bins.”) 

Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell knew that reading one Level E book does not mean that the child will be able to read other books at the level equally well, and yet their names are on an assessment that sells that myth. 

As teachers, we are required to spend valuable time administering this poorly constructed assessment on students for whom it was not designed, and to use the data in ways that limit student choice and even limit their access to grade-level content. It’s time for us to insist on being provided more reliable assessments and being given the flexibility to use more authentic methods for matching our diverse learners with texts they can read.

For more from Fountas and Pinnell:


F&P is the most bogus reading program and assessment system in education.

Can we talk about how inappropriate the level A book is for assessing kindergarteners ??? Even the title Best Freud’s is asking them to decod blends abs then the word friends ?? I looked at all of the spelling otters in that A book and it is ludicrous to expect a beginning reader to decode any of those words it is simply another piece of evidence that F and P sees reading as a visual memory psycho-linguistic guessing game all of which has been debunked by science me as a mother and an educator this is a do more harm than good situation that needs to have accountability for all of the students who are left feeling inadequate based on a flawed system as a 21 year veteran quite frankly I am just beside myself with the lack of accountability and resistance to progress. For every other aspect of human learning we celebrate using appropriate temporary scaffolds such as training wheels, baby spoons, etc yet, for something as critical as the fundamental right to read we allow one flawed, arbitrary system to level our kids abs prevent them from learning how to read using appropriate tools guided by knowledgeable practitioners, and although visual whole words memory has been debunked we still continue to staunchly defend this BAS as the gold standard to level our kids and place them into instructional books that force them to use predictable patterns abs pictures to guess their way through is so disheartening to be a lonely voice up against a mountain I’d resistance advocating for our students right to appropriate teaching and learning for literacy acquisition ...Margaret Goldberg you are one of my heroes and a beacon of hope but for me the longer we take to get this right the casualties are mounting ....I beg our files to please know better and finally do better ....the time to act is NOW

I don't think BAS gives as much helpful information as the DRA does. I wish my school would return to using the DRA, as it provided a great rubric to score where a student is reading on so many different aspects. It was easy to figure out where a student was strong, and where he/she needed to focus.

Thank you so much for giving us some background on where the BAS was tested and why it doesn't seem to work for my special education students.

Where did you obtain these Lexiles for the BAS books? Does anyone know where to find the Lexile measures for the rest of the books? I have Googled everything I can think of, to no avail.

My district makes us use the BAS, but lately I've come to the realization that it does very little for my special education students in terms of telling me whether they are making progress. They are struggling decoders, most with dyslexia. I don't need to know if they are able to tell me the author's purpose or connect Johnny's problem to a problem in their own life. I need to know their basic decoding and word recognition ability, and their ability to understand the essential idea of a sentence. Lexile is better for this.

People making arguments about classic literature being a low Lexile are missing the point. Lexile refers to text complexity. When matched with approximate grade levels, it's a measure of where a student's decoding and fluency should be at. That's it. NOT their comprehension.

My students CAN'T READ grade-level words, so they can't comprehend grade-level complexity of text, regardless of what the F&P level says. F&P levels are essentially useless for me because they don't tell me whether my student can actually read the text. For example, "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" is a F&P level Q (early 4th grade level), but the Lexile is 470, which is around a second grade level! So my fourth grade students who are reading at a 1st-2nd grade level might actually be able to read this book. Meanwhile, there is absolutely no way they would ever be able to read the BAS level Q books. So really, their ability to read any given book tells me absolutely nothing. The inconsistencies are so frustrating.

I see lots of replies about what other phonics assessments are out there, but does anyone have something better for comprehension? Or, if the complexity of the F and P texts seems right, is there a way to use them in concert with a more systematic phonics screener? I’m thinking mostly about levels L-Z. Thanks.

Literacy assessment is quite complicated. Using only decoding/encoding assessments like Words Their Way or other Phonics or word structure assessments does not give the full picture. It is also important to assess comprehension. Standardized tests like the PSSA measure student literacy growth based mostly on comprehension, as well as text analysis, critical thinking, and word knowledge (vocabulary). Comprehensive instruction in literacy addresses and measures both phonics and comprehension.

I completely disagree. Please share the evidence and a clarification of the ineffectiveness of the complex theory of reading. It makes me sad that we continue to engage in conversations that include so many inaccuracies of the theory.

Janice, I don't know of anything like that for reading but check out "Words Their Way" for spelling.

Problem is, is that districts like a one size, or program, fits all way of thinking when it comes to instruction, and it simply doesn't work that way. While F & P may have some components that are useful, the entirety of it's program isn't useful. A blended approach that fits ALL children works best. But the biggest joke of all is differentiating all school year long, but then expecting standardization of children on state exams. Totally contradictory and just plain wrong.

I used this assessment. It's a tool, like any assessment, and is very helpful for finding a starting point for guided reading groups. For formative assessment purposes Fountas and Pinnell provides a running record form identical to the BAS form for every book in the guided reading library they offer.

This article acts as a take down, while championing ORF one-minute assessments. Anyone who has worked In a school that relies on ORFcan attest to the problematic nature of that assessment ... students learn that the teacher wants them to read "fast." Teachers de-emphasize actual fluency aspects of expression/tone in favor of speed. BUT, ORF can be useful.

This article is one-sided. We should know by now that one size does not fit all. When used properly, the BAS is another tool in our belts as teachers. It provides useful information that can be combined with our other knowledge to serve students well.

@janice Really Great Reading has a free diagnostic decoding survey (dds) that does what you’re looking for.

Janice, look for the Sylvia Green Reading Inventory or Words Their Way Inventories. You'll love them!

The rigid nature of the structure of BAS takes a sound method of assisting children in their literacy development and factoryizes it. The bean counters who are several steps away from the action must love thinking that they have a handle on progress. F&P are right -- the identification and approximate leveling of books assists in students spending most of their time in "just right books," and the level they are reading can vary during or within each day. There are ups and downs but the direction of progress over time is what is important, rather than an occasional dip sticking. There is no way a reading conference should take 20 minutes. This tells me children are receiving very few conferences and very little guidance and the teacher is forced into being a technician, meeting outside demands, rather than being an artistic well-informed mentor.

This article is over simplistic, leads readers down a false path with the author’s bias represented as something that the BAS says, which it doesn’t. Irene and Gay have always said that levels are tools for teachers, and students need to be taught and given the autonomy to select books for themselves.

BAS is also a benchmarking system. It is not meant for frequent progress monitoring. It never has been and it never will. The author also quotes using Lexile as reliable, yet Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day comes out in the 7th grade band for Lexile and the Color Purple comes out at second grade. Reading is not just about calling words. It is also about the development of comprehension and meaning. If we are not reading for meaning, then what is the purpose.

The author of this article has taken and tried to use a system for a purpose it was not intended for and inferentially misrepresented assumptions as facts.

The reality is no one system is going to be perfect. There is not “one true way” of teaching reading as the brain was not designed to read or write. Some people learn one way. Some learn another. Many need a hybrid of many methods. It is the duty of the educational practitioner to be familiar with multiple approaches to meet the diverse needs of the readers in front of them. Failure to do so is the true malpractice.

American Reading Company has an assessment that is far superior to the F and P benchmark system. It is titled the Independent Reading Level Assessment (IRLA). This assessment follows a systematic approach which begins with teaching patterns and executive function. It then teaches students sight words in order to read many books. Once sight words are mastered it begins systematic phonics. I have over simplified the process but it is a great leveling system that helps teachers know exactly what students need to be taught to move to the next level.

As for different assessments google Quick Phonics Probe. That will give a decent look at the students ability to read cvc, ccvc,cvcc, cve word etc. Also the Words Their Way Spelling inventory is great. Lastly a phonemic awareness assessment (Rosner or Kilpatrick) have ones that are easy to give but provide valuable information!

When we first used BAS, students read silently then retold the text/answered questions. Then they read a second time to check errors. Now they do a cold read, and if they pass at 90% or greater accuracy. We ask them to retell with no probing/ prompting. We use the BAS as promotion criteria.

PM Benchmark kits are so much better we’ve found. I only used F&P for 6 months before going back to the PM. PM are the only publisher that writes the books to a level criteria, F&P not constant as their books are written and leveled after. Wasn’t a fan at all of F&P and can’t see what all the hype is about. PM more accurate and consistent.

Leveling books based length of work and length of sentence does nothing to help children negotiate text, not to love to read books. Schools and libraries that do this short-change children in a significant way Teach them to read and let them pick their own books. Invite them to read what they want and can, not what a test tells them they can.

If your using Wilson buy the WIST assessment or use the WADE that comes with the program. You can also use the PAP. Phonological awareness profile to achieve all your levels.

Try the QPS (Quick Phonics Screener) by Hasbrouck is my personal favorite, hope this helps.

The CORE Phonics Survey works well for assessing a students ability to decode real and nonsense words.

There are lots of options. Core Phonics is readily available. Look on teacher made resource sites for both teacher made materials and suggestions. I have found teacher made materials that are great as informal assessments. Try words their way. I find it to be the most user friendly, and the simple assessments will give you the information you are looking for. There are lots of word sorting activities available that coordinate with it, and some great new books are out about fun and effective ways of doing word work.

Maybe the Words Their Way spelling inventory? I teach kinder as well. WTW is built around the idea that you can learn a lot about a child’s understanding by the way they spell a word.

There are lots of options. Core Phonics is readily available. Look on teacher made resource sites for both teacher made materials and suggestions. I have found teacher made materials that are great as informal assessments. Try words their way. I find it to be the most user friendly, and the simple assessments will give you the information you are looking for. There are lots of word sorting activities available that coordinate with it, and some great new books are out about fun and effective ways of doing word work.

I want someone to make an assessment to tell the students mastery of first CVC words, digraphs, floss words, blends, VCe, words, vowel pairs and so on. I am sure it is out there as I am new to this. I am teaching Wilson Fundations and adding a whole lot of phonological and phonemic skills. But my kids come in all over the place. I would love an assessment to show me their reading and spelling knowledge so I can make groups of like abilities and teach them from there. Anybody know of something like that? I teach kinder.

Amen -- we have some assessments for this in special ed, but I wish my school used something like it in gen ed! We use some basic assessments from IMSE (Institute for Multi-Sensory Education). Not sure of the copyrights.

The decoding surveys that are free from Really Great Reading do a great job with showing which syllable types and features that readers have under control. Just Google it and you should be able to find it. I’m a literacy specialist with an education cooperative and use it with the districts I work with.

Check out the book How to Plan Differenitated Reading Instruction: Resources for Grade K-3 by Walpole and McKenna. It has an assessment for the items you mentioned aboved and lessons to complete with students based on their area of need.

I believe that assessment is from Words their way. We use it as a spelling assessment 3x a year. It breaks it down by initial sound, digraphs, blends, vowel patterns, etc. K-2 does 25 or 50 words for 3-5.

Check out 95!% materials
Phonological and phonics screeners plus intervention materials

Have you looked into the Quick Phonics Screener and Quick Spelling Survey?

Really Great Reading offers some awesome phonics surveys and they are free. I also use the Heggerty phonological awareness surveys from their main site and those are free as well.

Try the Core Phonics Survey. It tests in isolation, but includes both real and nonsense words broken into different categories (Cvc, ccvc, digraph, vowel patterns, multisyllabic words, etc). It has been helpful in carefully identifying challenges.

Smarty Ants app does this and it is free. It is an excellent assessment tool and begins a systematic teaching of these skills based upon assessment.

The assessment you are looking for assess decoding and encoding only. There is so much more to reading like comprehension! Which the BAS takes into consideration.

BAS has these. They are the alternative assessments recommended for digging deeper into root causes. Also the Words Their Way spelling screener does this.

Look into CORE-Consortium on Reaching Excellence. It is a scientific research based instruction. They have an assessment book. The name of the phonics assessment is CORE Phonics Survey. It includes the components you are asking for.

The Quick Phonics screener measures these for reading.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables