Is A Formal Assessment “Better?”

At the beginning of the school year, somebody asked me if I was going to do the letter-recognition test on every child. I said, “No.” This teacher was curious as to why, so I explained. “I don’t think that I need to. These children (and I named a couple) are already reading above grade level. If they can decode at this higher level, they already know letter-names and sounds. These children (and I named some more) have demonstrated their letter-sound knowledge through play. They were writing letters to their friends and identifying the letters in names and other familiar words. Others wrote on their paintings. I have videos of them telling me what they know. Just like I have videos of a few other children showing me how they’re still using the alphabet chart to identify letters. We’re working on oral language skills — rhyming and syllables — as we also build letter-recognition skills. They’ve shown me that they know a few letters, like the ones in their name, but that they still have many more to learn. Does it really matter if they know 5 or 7 letters? The bottom line is that this is a skill that these students are still developing, and we know that. As for the students that know most or all of the letters, does the standardized test tell me more than what I already know? No. Then I’m going to spend my time working on different things instead.”  Yes, I had a lot to say, but I’m glad that I explained it then, and I’m glad that I’m explaining it again now. Why? Because I think it’s time that we re-think testing.

The other day, I met a friend of mine for brunch. She works at a different school than I do, and she was discussing this other school’s assessment plan. The plan? It was the hope that every teacher would do the standardized reading assessment four times a year. Here’s confession time everyone: I did this assessment once this year — at the end of the year. Some people may question me on this choice. I understand. But here is why I decided to do what I did.
  • My teaching partner, Paula, and I read with the children on a daily basis, and knew from our ongoing assessment — including some running records — at what approximate level the children were reading.
  • Paula and I observed the children carefully during play, and watched and listened to them read with others. We saw what strategies they used. We heard them decoding texts — including their own writing — and we heard them discussing texts (demonstrating comprehension skills). Observing the children in action, helped us determine mini-lessons and plan for next steps.
  • Paula and I regularly connected with parents about reading. We discussed what we saw in the classroom, but we also listened to what parents saw at home. One mom even emailed us a recording of her daughter reading, so that we could provide suggestions for extensions at home. Growing Success — The Kindergarten Addendum mentions that children can demonstrate skills at home that we can use for assessment purposes. Some students feel more comfortable in a home environment, and may show some reading skills that they do not show at school. A standardized assessment may not accurately reflect these students’ skills.

We knew that a standardized assessment would give us a reading level, but it wouldn’t tell us more than what we already knew about our students as readers. When I eventually did the assessment at the end of the year, the levels were what I anticipated, but the standardized assessment came with a drawback that I hadn’t anticipated. Many students were less confident readers because of the testing experience.

Children were all used to reading with me during play. What we read connected with what they were doing and was meaningful to them. I would often record their reading and our conversations, but I never sat next to them with a paper and pen, checking off words and noting errors. This is something that I did later … without the children sitting there. As the year came to an end, I decided that I would do a formal reading assessment on each child. This was not an easy decision for me to make. Initially, I considered doing a running record instead, but eventually, I chose the more formal assessment option. Why?

  • I knew that every other teacher was doing it. (This is not necessarily a good reason, but sometimes peer pressure — even when there was no explicit pressure — is hard to ignore.)
  • I knew that the Grade 1 teachers would look closely at this assessment to plan for next year, and I wanted to give them something they could use.
  • I knew that reading levels often correspond with possibilities for additional support, and for the children that I thought might need this support, I wanted to make sure that I had the data that the school needed. 

Since I decided to do this more formal assessment, I thought that I would also create an environment that is conducive to this type of testing. I chose to pull students individually during our morning meeting time — which Paula runs — and read with them in a quieter space. I sat beside them with the marking sheet and my pen, and together, we did the test. 

I noticed the difference right away.

  • Children constantly looked over at me to see what I was writing on the sheet.
  • Many children found the reading level on the book right away, and they asked me, “Is this my reading level? Is this where I’m supposed to be?”
  • If I corrected an error, children saw me mark this on the sheet, and some children were bothered by this. They began to tap their feet, play with their hands, put their fingers or shirts in their mouth, and pause regularly during the rest of the book, concerned that they were making more errors. You could see and feel the stress, and no amount of comfort from me, seemed to change this. 

While slower, more stressful reading did not necessarily impact on the child’s reading level, it did impact on their confidence as readers. This really made me pause. Here I am working with four, five, and six-year-olds: our youngest school-age children that have just learned to read. Is it okay for any child to feel this kind of stress from a reading assessment (or any assessment for that matter)? If this assessment is not telling me more than what I already know, then is it the best option? 

Contemplating now why I chose to do this formal assessment in the first place, I’m now looking at how I can make this “test” less stressful for kids.

  • Maybe I need to do this assessment in the regular classroom environment where I read with them on a daily basis.
  • Maybe I need to forgo the pen and paper. Yes, I will need to do the paper work afterwards, but what if I recorded the reading instead? Sitting down with me and an iPad would be something that the children are used to, and maybe this would help decrease stress. 
  • Maybe I need to consider the different times that work best for the different children. While I pulled everybody at the beginning of the day, some students might feel more comfortable once they’ve settled into play and even done some reading and writing of their own that day. One time might not work for everyone. 

I share all of this because no matter what changes I make, one change that I will not be making is to significantly increase the number of times that I do this formal assessment for each child. Why? Because I think that there is tremendous value in our daily documentation that outlines where our students are at, what they need, and where we can go next. 

The other day, Donald Ey, from the United States, tweeted me a link to this article about Kindergarten classrooms in the US.

I was quick to reply with this.

Jill Snider then weighed in with her thinking and a link to the new Kindergarten Program Document.

I agree with Jill that our Program Document is “pretty darned good,” but then I think about standardized assessments and I worry about the role that they’ll play in the classroom environment. How do these assessments align with the play-based Program Document? How can we notice, name, and extend learning — in all grades — without the need for more formal assessments? None of us want our students to slip through the cracks. We want to see growth, and we want to do what we can to support this growth. Maybe the thinking behind more regular, formal assessments is that we’ll ensure that we are noting progress and identifying problems. But are these assessments cognitive stressors, and what impact might that have for the “whole child?” I’m curious to know how educators address these stressors, hold true to the Program Document, and still assess student growth. Maybe it’s time to continue to look even more seriously beyond formal options. 


2 thoughts on “Is A Formal Assessment “Better?”

  1. As a LRT, I would pop into FDK classes in March or April to check on some students who performed below benchmark. When I have assessed Ss they love to show me what they know. I was always sensitive to acclimate the student to the environment and I worked on building a connection before starting the assessment. Rarely have I seen students stressed with this assessment. The strongest negative reactions were wiggles of the feet, in their chair and quiet responses. In the beginning I tell them that they may know some of their letters and sounds and for the ones they don’t know, just to say “I don’t know” or “skip it”. The funniest response I received from a low reader when recalling a letter sound was “idk”. I smiled and he knew it was ok to not know. Each student would return to class very proud and would beg to be in 10-12 week reading intervention program using LLI Orange.

    • Thanks for your comment, Carrie! I’m glad to hear that you have not observed this stress in students, and that children feel comfortable sharing that they don’t know. I still wonder though if these formal assessments are always necessary. Would the classroom teacher have collected this data in a similar way? May you have already collected it as well through your work with these students? I also wonder if students were used to working with you in this way, so they reacted as such when you came to do your assessment. I read with students every day, but not in this more formal “testing atmosphere,” and I wonder if the change of environment impacted on their reaction to this reading time.

      I always find it interesting when thinking about why students are eager for guided reading groups or reading intervention groups. Is it because they crave this 1:1 or small group time with teachers? Sometimes I wonder if this interest speaks the most to importance of educator/child relationships.

      Thanks for chiming in on this important discussion!

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