Do We Really Need Tests to Assess Reading?

In a recent EdWeek article, Todd Brekhus, the President of myON, examined the current state of reading tests in schools and looked at how they work against the enjoyment of reading.

It's time to re-examine how the education community assesses reading growth. The truth is, with the tech tools at teachers’ disposal and personalized reading practices in place, a standardized test isn’t always an accurate indicator of where students are in their reading performance.

We live in an age of data, but oftentimes, tests alone don’t give educators the information they need to positively impact student performance. With the introduction of digital libraries, the frequent use of mobile devices, and affordable cloud-based tools, schools and districts can collect meaningful data that allows them to assess student growth and reading progress while students are reading. Crucial information about students’ reading behavior, engagement attitudes, and comprehension can inform personalized instruction and help motivate students to read.

A study conducted by the Dominican University in 2010 revealed that when students are motivated to read, they read more frequently. If they perceive reading as an enjoyable and appealing activity, that in of itself will contribute to greater reading success. In the study, researcher John Guthrie and his colleagues confirmed that students with high levels of motivation read more extensively and use higher-order comprehension skills than students with lower levels of motivation.

Every year, the average school district has its students complete a standardized state test, a few benchmark tests, and several summative assessments for the end of a unit, chapter, or textbook. State assessment data, for example, isn’t timely enough to give teachers actionable insights into students’ progress or lack thereof. All of these testing methods share three characteristics: they are disconnected from the reading experience itself, are incomplete when used alone, and don’t provide detailed information about students’ appetite for reading or their reading prowess.

In the article, Brekhus argue that there are three key factors that are necessary for schools to evaluate and deliver a personalized reading experience that improves student outcomes: motivation, volume, and engagement. None of these can be measured using a test.

Measuring Reading with Reading

What exactly is “measuring reading with reading”? It’s a process that requires collaboration among multiple stakeholders, from technology developers to content providers to educators. Some districts have already adopted this approach. The Maury County School District in Tennessee, for example has used a group of teachers to serve as instructional coaches, rethinking formative assessment approaches.

By measuring reading with reading, the district staff begins to examine the number of books browsed and read by the students. They look at the number of words and pages read, time spent reading, students’ reading interests, and Lexile® scores, among other data points. They use this information to inform decisions that not only increase their students’ reading achievement, but also help to instill a love of reading.

Maury County’s Superintendent Chris Marczak uses a set of guidelines called the “7 Keys for College and Career Readiness” to help the district reach its achievement goals. Keys one and three tie directly into the “measure reading with reading” approach:

1) All students’ reading proficiency [must be] at or above grade level by the end of 3rd grade.

3) All students’ math and English proficiency [must be] at or above grade level by the end of 6th grade.

As Marczak said, “I knew we needed a literacy platform that doesn’t just offer assessments to measure progress, but instead measures reading by reading.”

In Maury County and districts like it around the country, teaching students to read and to love reading is a challenge. With the right technology and philosophy in place, though, leaders like Marczak are illuminating a pathway toward improved student literacy.