Entry Points to Using Authentic Reading Data for Student Assessment

Here’s a novel idea: let’s measure reading with...READING! As questions continue to pile up about the value of traditional standardized tests, attention has turned increasingly to other instruments for assessment, such as student artifacts, projects, portfolios, and students' written responses to texts. But back to data. Let’s start with a quote. Or two or three. 

Every educator is entitled to their own opinion. However, what they are not entitled to are their own facts. In other words, there are known, high-impact teaching practices backed by research, and choosing to ignore them due to faulty logic or disreputable sources is not advisable. This becomes especially troublesome when the “facts” start to inform instructional practices.  

I remember when I was a young teacher and I had huge piles of data waiting for me to synthesize as students left the classroom each afternoon. As it turns out, it was garbage because it was not helping me guide my instruction. Even worse, it wasn’t helping me answer some of the most important questions about my readers:

  • Are students reading?
  • When are they reading?
  • What are they reading?
  • What are their special reading interests and preferences?
  • How much time are they spending reading?  

These five questions are essential if I’m going to truly curate and leverage meaningful data to inform assessment and decisions about future instruction. In my experience, the best methods of collecting this data isn’t through multiple-choice comprehension quizzes, or end-of-book tests, but through conversations brimming with feedback. Gravity Goldberg speaks to this idea within her 4 M Framework, specifically when educators act as a “mirror.” 

As the above quote illustrates, too often, educators can fall into deficit mode when synthesizing data. The result is that we are constantly trying to “fix what’s broken.” Instead, approaching all readers with an admiring lens, as Gravity Goldberg calls it, embraces where students are and places trust in their potential for growth. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to focus on one essential question that educators can bring up on their radars to help guide the collection of authentic reading data:

How can I best capture students' interpretations and responses to text?

In my experience as a classroom teacher, integration specialist, and instructional coach, I have found three major entry points to help in mining authentic reading data for student assessment: authentic feedback, visible thinking routines, and student choice/voice. 

Authentic Feedback

Feedback works best when it’s directly tied to a specific goal. And it doesn’t always have to be quantitative in nature. In fact, I would argue that the best data isn’t a number at all, but a conversation. Enter authentic feedback! Without feedback, students are going at this whole learning thing without a compass. Even worse, it becomes quite difficult to achieve levels of authentic engagement when students are never provided a reason to buy in to what you are selling! Brene Brown has studied this very dynamic, and explains further how important feedback is. “Without feedback there can be no transformative change. When we don’t talk to the people we’re leading about their strengths and their opportunities for growth, they begin to question their contributions and our commitment.” The five qualities of feedback articulated by Gravity Goldberg helped me focus on providing students with a road map to their success, but also expedited the process of sifting through the “garbage” to find the data that truly provided insight into the growth of my readers. 

When students receive meaningful feedback, it helps answer the three most important questions in learning: Where am I now? Where am I going? How am I going to get there? It’s no surprise that John Hattie, the author of Visible Learning and the Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, believes that feedback is essential to school improvement. As he puts it, “The simplest prescription for improving education must be dollops of feedback.” It is, after all, our readers who need feedback to focus on what they are already doing so they can develop the confidence to push towards their unique goals

Visible Thinking Routines

Let’s get meta! Thinking about thinking reminds me of the film Inception, where the idea of diving into a dream within a dream is explored.

It takes hard work, dedication, constant reflection, and most of all a desire to take risks and extend beyond one’s comfort zone. But the results are extremely rewarding. If we know that providing learners with feedback that is timely, meaningful, and relevant to has a strong impact on their growth, then it should be said that what informs our feedback be rooted in authenticity. The single most impactful framework that has helped me unpack students’ thinking about text and how they respond to it has been the implementation of visible thinking routines. What started as a research project at Harvard’s Project Zero spiraled into a larger enterprise of teaching that covers a wide range of domains, including engagement, uncovering understanding, and promoting independence. 

When I’m trying to gauge my students’ ability to interpret and respond to text, my assessment practices are hyper-focused on looking for the relevance of student contributions. Do they make contributions related to the big ideas, the heart and substance of the topic, or do they make more surface connections? These questions cannot (and should not!) be answered via skimpy and weak assessments like multiple-choice tests. What the authors of Making Thinking Visible contend is that educators need to make student thinking—which has often been thought of as an internal and mysterious action—visible so both students and teachers can identify it, improve it, and then assess it. A great starting place to learn more about these thinking routines is the official website

Student Choice/Voice

When learners are allowed to share their voice, it gives them a chance to not only share their thinking in what they select, but the tool or mechanism to do so. Establishing a classroom culture that values student voice can help educators shift instructional practices towards authentic engagement while bringing students in to meet their learning needs. This shift, from the role of students as passive recipients to students as invested partners in learning, also requires a shift in how we know (authentic feedback) and measure (visible thinking routines) what our students are learning. When student voices on assessment are encouraged and heard, educators can truly build a culture of student voice and ensure that assessment practices are aligned to best practices. 

As educators implement thinking routines, they also find themselves being pulled into students’ thinking and ideas, thus creating a self-perpetuating ideal where the teacher, too, must make their thinking visible. All of this is to say that when students’ thinking is curated and valued, it makes for some active and exciting conversations for assessment. Giving students voice and choice in assessments while using meaningful data to guide feedback is empowering, and it encourages our learners to be critical thinkers who take the helm of their learning goals and objectives. When applying these entry points, I have observed student buy-in while they take responsibility for their own assessment and self-evaluation. I wouldn’t have my assessments in reading and literacy look any different. Their voices are, and continue to be, an integral piece of the assessment process.

Billy Spicer

Billy currently teaches in Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 in suburban Chicago. After spending a decade teaching 3rd thru 5th grades, Billy served students and teachers as an instructional coach. He recently spent time in the Bahamas with the Shedd Aquarium where he lived on a research vessel for a week conducting scientific inquiry. Prior to teaching in Lake Zurich he worked at Walt Disney World as a member of the Animal Programs department in entertaining, educating, and inspiring conservation action. He facilitates a passion for literacy, passionate learning, and social media to discover creative ways for students to meet their individual learning needs. Authentic and purposeful technology integration is a non-negotiable aspect in providing students with the tools to be successful. Billy earned his BA in Elementary Education at Illinois State University and a MA in Literacy and Reading from Benedictine University. He also enjoys hot dogs, coffee, and his ever growing collection of records. To learn more about his interests and passions in and out of the classroom, follow him on Twitter-@MrBillySpicer