I received this letter recently and below is my response. I bet this goes on in lots of schools (unfortunately).
Dear Dr. Shanahan,
What do you believe to be best practice in assessing a student's reading comprehension? As elementary schools turn to the Professional Learning Community framework, teachers are expected to devise tests within their grade level teams to test for reading skills like inferring, author's purpose, cause & effect...etc...
In your comprehension blog, however, you stated that it was difficult to assess these skills separately since reading is an integrated process. That makes a lot of sense.
Are these Professional Learning Communities misdirected in creating these tests for specific skills? From how students perform on these tests from week to week, our intervention groups are then decided. For example, if students perform low on the cause & effect questions, then they will be retaught this skill during the intervention.
I question whether this is best practice and if we are oversimplifying other skills that go into comprehension.
As a result, my big questions are:
What is the best way for a teacher to assess reading comprehension? (Other than student conferences and observations) Should intervention groups then focus more on reading components such as decoding, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary? Is this practice more effective than breaking down the skills of reading for focused reteaching?
Dear Literacy Coach:
Thanks for the question. Yes, it is nearly impossible to come up with a comprehension test that can diagnose specific skills performance. The major testing companies have spent loads of money and time on that problem with a plethora of fine psychometricians and scores of skilled test writers dedicated to the problem, and they have never managed to do it. Of course, it's pretty unlikely that an individual teacher with all that he or she has to do would manage to come up with a test that would reveal how kids do with such skills. I would recommend saving your time on that one.
The first rule of assessment is to never test unless you plan to use the information. If you are going to provide extra help for kids who are struggling with reading comprehension, by all means, have the kids doing retellings (orally or in writing), or ask them a bunch of different questions about a text and see how they do with the answers. If they aren't comprehending a large proportion of what they are reading, then, by all means, give them more time reading and thinking about the ideas in the text through discussion and writing and other activities. Keep your focus less on the question types than on the texts themselves... instead of trying to pile up inferential questions alone or main idea questions alone, focus on asking questions that will help the kids think deeply about the ideas in the texts (you'll end up with a pretty good mix if you do that). And, by all means, continue to pay attention to the students' fluency, vocabulary knowledge, decoding skills, and writing ability.
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