What Makes A “Reading Assessment” Better?

There are so many reasons that I should be happy right now … and I am happy. I am proud. But this week, something’s really been bothering me, and it revolves around reading assessments. It’s almost June, and as the year comes to an end, many Ontario educators are starting to do final reading assessments. We can choose the assessment that we use, and there are different options out there. I’ve used various ones in the past, and I’ve liked many for different reasons. I think that my issue right now is deeper than the assessment tool itself. Here’s my struggle.

I’m currently about half-way through my SK students, and there have been no surprises. I’m not expecting any either. Yes, there were a couple of times that I vacillated between two levels, and so I tried one, and if needed, I tried another one. But in the end, our students are getting basically the level that I anticipated, and their needs, are the ones that we knew. 

  • The assessment is showing us which children need to continue to develop their sight vocabulary. We also have numerous video recordings that show us this.
  • The assessment is showing us which children need to continue to work on blending sounds to read unknown words. My teaching partner, Paula, and I have identified some similar needs through daily reading experiences with our students. 
  • The assessment is showing us which children need to check for understanding, and use different strategies to problem solve and correct errors. Again, we notice this through regular reading with our students.
  • The assessment is showing us which strategies students use when they get to difficult words, and which ones they do not use. We notice this as well when we read one-to-one and in small groups with students.

Then comes my even bigger concern: does a level change how we view students? Let me give you an example. There are two children: Student A and Student B.

Student A reads a text one level below our Board benchmark. She tracks each word as she reads it and sounds out unknown words: linking the sounds with the picture cues. She attempts the next level, and uses many of the same strategies that she used for the one before. She does not have a quick recall of sight words, and has not picked up on the pattern in the book yet. Since she’s trying to sound out each word, her reading sounds disjointed, and while she is close in the number of errors, you can tell that the text is slightly too hard for her. She knows how to decode though, and with continued practise of sight words, the use of a few more reading strategies, and regular oral reading, she will meet benchmark. Will it happen before the end of the year? Possibly … especially with continued practise.

Student B reads the benchmark level text. She sounds out some words, but not with the same confidence as Student A. She has a slightly better sight vocabulary though, and she quickly picks up the pattern in the text. She continues with the pattern then, which helps with fluency. She also makes excellent use of the picture cues. Student B scores just within the “independent” range for this text. While Student B technically scores higher than Student A, both students are decoding text, and the first student is actually more confident at blending sounds together. 

I think of this because next year’s teacher is going to receive a list of levels. Without knowing the child yet, how might these levels impact on his/her view of the child as a reader and his/her strengths and needs? I ask this question because one of the most powerful parts of doing this reading assessment so far has been one of two comments that I have heard repeatedly from students as I speak to them about their reading behaviours: either “I’m a reader!” or “I can read now!” These words matter. Every child saying them is right. 

  • They understand that pictures and words have meaning.
  • They are using letter-sounds, picture cues, and/or contextual cues to read words.
  • They are tracking print.
  • They are independently correcting most errors using different strategies.

These children are ALL readers! Will all of us — myself included — remember to view these children in this way, and communicate these thoughts to them, so that they continue to build confidence in their reading skills?

I can’t help but connect this thinking to a wonderful VLOG that I saw tonight by Susan Hopkins and her daughter, Siena. 

In this VLOG, Siena talks about her experience with EQAO. While I realize that this standardized test varies from a short reading assessment, what I think is similar and important to note, is that this is only one assessment. Our view of the child — and even the child as a reader — has to be greater than this one assessment. How do we ensure that it is? I think about my experiences in the past, and I wonder if I always remembered the importance of not seeing and inferring information about children as readers through the lens of only one assessment, no matter how standardized it may be.

I know that there’s a lot that I should be celebrating.

  • All of our students have made incredible gains: some of the best that I’ve seen in my 16 years teaching with the Board.
  • The percentage of students that have met benchmark will exceed our school target. 
  • All of our SK students, and even many of our JK students, have learned how to decode. 

But maybe the most interesting thing is the fact that I can write all of these words without having finished this reading assessment, and yet, I KNOW that each of these points are true. I’m then left wondering, in our reality of ongoing documentation and reflection, how might our need for standardized assessments change, or is their greatest value, in the fact that they are “standardized?” I know that there are many people who view these tools differently, so tonight I’m hoping to start a conversation and deepen my understanding.


4 thoughts on “What Makes A “Reading Assessment” Better?

  1. You bring up an interesting point, Aviva, and that’s the impression that you’re pushing forward to the teacher next year. In my experience, there have been a number of these predeterminations from staff room discussion to looking at reports for the incoming class. For many, they use it as a way to prepare for what’s coming.

    I always chose a different tact and never looked at these things before a class. A break of two months can be a lifetime in terms of human growth and development and maturing. I always preferred to allow each student come into my classroom as an “open slate” and then let them show me where their strengths and weaknesses lie. I like to think it gives them all an equal start. The downside is that it might take a bit to realize things that would have been obvious from reports.

    I think it might be different in Computer Science classrooms, especially if you’re the only teacher of the subject in the school. In their second and third years, they’re not an unknown quantity.

    • Thanks for the comment, Doug! You make such wonderful points here. The interesting thing is that I often hear teachers say that they don’t look at OSRs right away because they want to form their opinion of students first. Does the same hold true for reading assessments? Please don’t get me wrong. There’s value in knowing a starting point. Even with growth or decline of the summer, a September score is likely to be close … but a number is just a number unless we also indicate strengths, needs, and next steps? We have a group of students at a similar level, but their profiles, as readers, vary. As educators, we communicate reading information on report cards (to an extent), but there are good reasons (back to my OSR point again) that teachers don’t read those right away. So maybe all of us really need to think about conversations we have around next year, and how we can make a number, more than just a number, and really view the whole child. If we think about the final paragraph in your comment, by the time that you have these students year after year, you know that “whole child,” and your impressions are based on more than just assessment data. When I taught the same students in different grades, the same was true for me, and even when I received a “reading score,” I knew the child behind the number. This is harder to do when the child is just a name on a page, so I’m curious to know how educators address this in their schools and Boards.


  2. Aviva- I really appreciate your comments on the reading assessments. I work with students that do not reach benchmarks, that struggle with standardized reading assessments, that struggle with reading in classrooms and with all the skills you list above. Most many of them are extremely stressed with reading in general. Your comments are key “These children are ALL readers!…remember to view these children in this way, and communicate these thoughts to them, so that they continue to build confidence in their reading skills.” All of the children we work with come to us depleted, “I can’t read” “I’m reading at the lowest level in my class.” Many of the behaviours we see are stress behaviours around reading. When we begin to scaffold through instruction and relationships, in a setting where differences in abilities and each small success is celebrated- we see reading skills soar. Willingness to take risks increases and confidence builds. Thinking outside the testing is key. Thinking about the child’s perspective and stress around reading is critical. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your comment, Laura! I was in a similar position last year, and communicating these thoughts to our students, were so important. You add an incredibly important reminder here though: we have to build relationships, scaffold instruction, and provide materials that are within their zone of proximal development, so that are words are not empty ones, but ones that the students can truly believe. It’s not enough to just say that, “You’re a reader!” Students need to see and know this as well, and realize that there are many different ways to read texts. Reading is about risk-taking, and confidence is important if students are going to take risks. Children also need to trust that we’re there to support them. Reading is complicated, and definitely way more than just a “level” on a standardized assessment. Thanks for sharing your experience and making this so very clear!


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