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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Does Formative Assessment Improve Reading Achievement?

September 24, 2015

Today I was talking to a group of educators from several states. The focus was on adolescent literacy. We were discussing the fact that various programs, initiatives, and documents — all supposedly research-based efforts — were promoting the idea that teachers should collect formative assessment data.

I pointed out that there wasn’t any evidence that it actually works at improving reading achievement with older students.

I see the benefit of such assessment or “pretesting” when dealing with the learning of a particular topic or curriculum content. Testing kids about what they know about a topic, may allow a teacher to skip some topics or to identify topics that may require more extensive classroom coverage than originally assumed.

It even seems to make sense with certain beginning reading skills (e.g., letters names, phonological awareness, decoding, oral reading fluency). Various tests of these skills can help teachers to target instruction so no one slips by without mastering these essential skills. I can’t find any research studies showing that this actually works, but I myself have seen the success of such practices in many schools. (Sad to say, I’ve also seen teachers reduce the amount of teaching they provide in skills that aren’t so easily tested — like comprehension and writing — in lieu of these more easily assessed topics.)

However, “reading” and “writing” are more than those specific skills — especially as students advance up the grades. Reading Next (2004), for example, encourages the idea of formative assessment with adolescents to promote higher literacy. I can’t find any studies that support (or refute) the idea of using formative assessment to advance literacy learning at these levels, and unlike with the specific skills, I’m skeptical about this recommendation.

I’m not arguing against teachers paying attention… “I’m teaching a lesson and I notice that my many of my students are struggling to make sense of the Chemistry book, so I change my up my upcoming lessons, providing a greater amount of scaffolding to ensure that they are successful.” Or, even more likely… I’m delivering a lesson and can see that the kids aren’t getting it, so tomorrow we revisit the lesson.

Those kinds of observations and on-the-fly adjustments may be what all that is implied by the idea of “formative assessment.” If so, it is obviously sensible, and it isn’t likely to garner much research evidence.

However, I suspect the idea is meant to be more sophisticated and elaborate than that. If so, I wouldn’t encourage it. It is hard for me to imagine what kinds of assessment data would be collected about reading in these upper grades, and how content teachers would ever use that information productively in a 42-minute period with a daily case load of 150 students.

A lot of what seems to be promoted these days as formative assessment is getting a snapshot or level of a school’s reading performance, so that teachers and principals can see how much gain the students make in the course of the school year (in fact, I heard several of these examples today). That isn’t really formative assessment by any definition that I’m aware of. That is just a kind of benchmarking to keep the teachers focused. Nothing wrong with that… but you certainly don’t need to test 800 kids to get such a number (a randomized sample would provide the same information a lot more efficiently).

Of course, many of the computer instruction programs provide a formative assessment placement test that supposedly identifies the skills that students lack so they can be guided through the program lessons. Thus, a test might have students engaged in a timed task of filling out a cloze passage. Then the instruction has kids practicing this kind of task. Makes sense to align the assessment and the instruction, right? But cloze has a rather shaky relationship with general reading comprehension, so improving student performance on that kind of task doesn’t necessarily mean that these students are becoming more college and career ready. Few secondary teachers and principals are savvy about the nature of reading instruction, so they get mesmerized by the fact that “formative assessment” — a key feature of quality reading instruction — is being provided, and the “gains” that they may see are encouraging. That these gains may reflect nothing that matters would likely never occur to them; it looks like reading instruction, it must be reading instruction.

One could determine the value of such lessons by using other outcome measures that are more in line with the kinds of literacy one sees in college, as well as in civic, familial, and economic lives of adults. And, one could determine the value of the formative assessments included in such programs if one were to have groups use the program, following the diagnostic guidance based on the testing, and having other groups just use the program by following a set grade level sequence of practice. I haven’t been able to find any such studies on reading, so we have to take the value of this pretesting on the basis of faith I guess.

Testing less — even for formative purposes — and teaching more seems to me to be the best way forward in most situations.

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"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." — Jorge Luis Borges