Fine-Tuning Literacy Assessments

Informal reading inventories can help teachers assess the literacy skills of students in grades 3 to 12.

December 22, 2022
SDI Productions / iStock

I believe there is a critical need for deeper assessments of literacy development for upper elementary and middle grades students, as well as high school students. When I began my teaching career in 2007, I assumed that many of the older students I worked with would already be skilled readers.

As a teacher educator for seven years, I found this assumption to be quite common among my preservice-teacher students, as well. While the dialogue around reading interventions and assistance includes a focus on early intervention, and rightly so, I suggest that it’s never too late to make meaningful use of assessments and offer help for a reader who is striving.

Reading is A Many-Pronged Concept

My first internship interaction with a striving reader, a ninth-grader who had difficulty decoding multiple-syllable words, quickly showed me that the baseline skills of reading are still needed in some cases, even as older students are assumed to be “reading to learn.” Scholar Gerald Duffy has discussed the complex nature of the reading process, and many models exist that demonstrate the many-pronged nature of reading.

Echoing Kylene Beers, it’s no wonder that some students find areas of struggle within this complex system of practice, and students who are striving in their reading development are incredibly brave human beings. As Beers notes, students go to a place each day where they are expected to read and write to unlock content on a regular basis—what’s more, it takes bravery to ask for help. 

Given the complexity of this process, how can teachers begin to grasp what is happening in reading?

Implement Informal Reading Inventories

While we have benchmark data to paint some broad strokes, and summative assessment data to paint even broader (norm-referenced) strokes, one step that teachers can take is implementing an informal reading inventory (IRI). Among my go-to assessments are the Morris Informal Reading Inventory and the Qualitative Reading Inventory. These tools are one-on-one assessments that are helpful for students who experience unique challenges or need additional assistance in reading. 

I wouldn’t use an IRI in a class-wide fashion, nor would I ask students to respond to the instrument in front of their peers. These deeper assessments are best given in enrichment times, during the beginning of the day, or in a more confidential and quiet setting.

IRIs are a wonderful and useful step beyond the generally drawn assessment picture because they can help students engage with words at particular stages of reading development (I avoid the word levels because these are suggestions and guidelines, not barriers and guardrails—reading development is much more complicated than many leveling systems would suggest).

From these word stages, students can practice passage reading, which allows teachers to get a sense of how the reader is growing in terms of fluency. Comprehension on IRIs can be quite tricky to attempt to measure, and so I also make the case that teachers can engage in some of these steps using tools they have at hand to develop their own IRIs. 

For example, steps to engage in this work would include the following:

1. Ask students to read a list of 20 words at an approximate reading stage.

2. If students can automatically read more than half of the words on the list (Morris suggests 80 percent of the words or better), ask them to read a passage at approximately the same grade level of reading. Again, approximations are helpful.

3. As students read, calculate errors and, if desired, the speed at which they read.

It’s important to note that when it comes to reading, speed isn’t everything, but it does serve as an indication of overall fluency. A student might read slowly and build comprehension, or their reading might be labored. These reading traits can be helpful in thinking about next instructional steps, including the types of passages that might require more teacher support or, consequently, more independent practice and comfort.

In keeping with the work of literacy experts like JoAnne Caldwell, we’re looking for students to read with an accuracy of 98 percent or better for independent reading. Anything less than 90 percent accuracy can be frustrating for a reader.

Add Formative Assessments

While summative assessments serve a purpose, and IRIs can supplement the results, I think there is and always will be a need for continuous checking and rechecking of data. Teacher expertise is essential for keeping up with students’ progress, in addition to utilizing the progress-monitoring steps that are becoming commonplace in schools. In my opinion, there’s simply not enough emphasis placed on the expertise of the teacher as the one who spends hours at school with a child each week, linking instruction to standards.

Additionally, I make the case for teaching all students, while noting the particular responses and reader/writer moves that students bring to their work. It’s important to locate a student’s strengths and work forward from these areas with a positivity rather than a deficit framing. I’ve noticed that much conversation about test scores, whether considering the National Assessment of Educational Progress or other measures, is all too often deficit-based.

I’m also concerned that standardized tests simply do not provide a meaningful assessment for some students to begin to find areas of strength from which to work forward. Our assessments as teacher experts will always be important, whether that valuable contribution is acknowledged by stakeholders or overlooked. 

While there are many aspects of assessments that I continue to consider, I have used summative assessments as a 3,000-foot view in my classroom with the note that if my students aren’t performing well on the summative, this assessment has just become formative before I feel we can completely move on to new material.

Additional formative assessments can include the writings that students complete, brief jottings and responses to questions in class, and even less formal conversations and interactions in class. I’ve sometimes found it useful to circle back to some content and concepts to allow mental muscles to flex and build. This means that students can revisit material and then be assessed again later on for growth and learning.

I’m also a believer in tailoring individualized and creative assessments so that students can have agency in the assessment process and demonstrate their knowledge and skills. For example, I am now using choice boards for students, and I have provided summative options in the past based on class readings. This means that assessments can appear in a variety of formats—multiple choice, short answer, and essay (of course), but also video responses, creative artifacts, and arts-based products.

Just as my students are wonderful and diverse, so too can my assessment (and grading) life have some beautiful variety.

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  • Literacy
  • Formative Assessment
  • English Language Arts

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