Guest Blogger: Darla Salay
One of my tasks this year as a curriculum supervisor was to help our district data team take the lead in their respective grade levels to create meaningful performance assessments. The purpose was to use the feedback to drive instruction and next steps with students. The conscientious group worked tirelessly to create PA’s for both reading and math for the school year, presented them to their teaching teams, and went about leading discussions on how to use the information after each data collection.
We were moving forward triumphantly, or so it seemed. But then, we hit a roadblock. The information we gathered from the math assessments was straightforward and providing, for the most part, a solid path for next steps in the classroom. The reading assessments. Not so much.
Knowing what I know about the teaching of reading, I can’t say that I was surprised. I had a nagging feeling that the usefulness of the reading data in the way we were creating it—namely, passages with fill-in-the-blank answers–would be limited.
Now, that’s not to say there is not a place for quick, fill-in-the blank PA’s that can gauge, for example, students’ ability to use context cues, identify main idea, or identify fact from opinion. The problem is, that is a relatively small piece of the puzzle in the overall picture of our students.
The real work of formative assessment takes place day by day, by conferring with students, listening as they talk with peers, and noticing progress or areas for growth. That’s when we might learn that Sarah’s ability to inference helped her understand a character’s motivation. Or, we might learn that Abby is on the verge of identifying a complex metaphor in the text that will lift her to a distinctly higher level of critical thinking.
Case in point: I visited a fourth grade class recently and sat with a group reading Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo. As the group conferred, the topic of the character Rob and his reference to a “suitcase” kept resurfacing. Using the “again and again” strategy from Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, (2014), students wondered aloud why Rob kept referring to a piece of luggage. Here is a snippet of the conversation:
Abby: He kept bringing up the suitcase.
Teacher: So do you have an idea about what the suitcase means? Can we go back and find some places and see where he talks about the suitcase? And Abby, if you want, you can read (those parts) out loud.
Abby, reading from the text: “He kept the suitcase closed … He imagined himself in a suitcase too full … Sometimes he doesn’t want to keep it shut.”
Me, to the group at the end of their conversation: So, did you get to the significance of the suitcase?
Students: Well, yea, we understood that Rob was shutting himself out.
Later, Abby would show that her understanding was much deeper than simply knowing that the character Rob was shutting himself out.
She blogged: A More deeper reason is that Rob always kept himself in a suitcase and didn’t let his emotions out. He was keeping his sadness low. Then he was sort of like the tiger when at the end he let his sadness rise like the tiger rose out of its cage.
So how does a teacher know what data to mine? There are probably as many ways to collect data as there are teachers, but I’ve found that thinking in terms of relevance and action can help.
For example, if the strategy you offered proved relevant in guiding the student to deeper understanding, that’s worth noting. In this case, we learned that rereading and prompting, helped Abby to think metaphorically, taking her ability to think critically to a higher level. Prompting and rereading were relevant for her.
If action is needed to move a student forward, that’s worth noting. This anecdotal data helps identify where the student’s current knowledge and skills are. From there, we can create a plan with the student to move to the next level of understanding.
So, while formative assessment comes in many forms, it also serves different purposes. One might say that the more traditional, fill-in-the blank performance assessments help determine a general direction for curriculum. However, conferring and listening in on student conversations provides the data that can propel students forward, changing the course of their reading lives.
Darla Salay is a current curriculum supervisor, a former literacy coach with the New Jersey Department of Education, and a frequent attendee at TCRWP’s coaching institutes. Follow Darla on Twitter @DarlaSalay.