Assessment expert Dr. Melissa Farrall explains how assessment helps us understand why children do what they do, and maps out how we can better meet their unique needs.
QUESTION: Every child is unique. Classroom teachers can attest to that fact—likely more than anyone else! But understanding and addressing each child’s unique learning profile can be difficult. How does assessment help teachers meet students’ needs, and what challenges do teachers face when assessing students’ learning?
Dr. Melissa Farrall: Knowing about children’s strengths and weaknesses is extremely helpful because this knowledge can explain a lot about a child’s behavior, their successes, and their challenges. Unfortunately, many teachers are not trained to understand how our strengths make some things easy and how our weaknesses make other things hard and downright discouraging. Teacher preparation programs may not cover theories of how we learn or of the cognitive processes that support reading, writing, and math. They may not inform students of the tests that we use to learn about children’s intellectual and academic functioning, or even how those tests are scored. They may not train teachers to understand what we can learn from testing, or what student performance on a test can tell us.
Educators benefit from learning about assessment so that they can make a stronger link between the data that we take, recommendations for instruction, and lesson planning. In this way, we can provide better instruction to typical learners and more expert instruction to those with diverse needs. It can help teachers identify students who may be at risk and suggest individualized interventions that will improve learners’ skills. Knowing more about assessment will help teachers collaborate with their school teams and participate in evaluation meetings in more engaged and informed ways.
QUESTION: What about school administrators? How will a better grasp of assessment help their work?
Dr. Farrall: It would be wonderful for an administrator to dive into assessment and have a more comprehensive grasp of different kinds of assessment tools, their benefits and their limitations. There’s no doubt in my mind that administrators would come away better equipped to work with their evaluators, talk with their teachers, and provide support to parents. Training in assessment would help administrators to better understand criterion and norm-referenced testing as well as progress monitoring tools and screeners. They would learn more about important issues in test development, such as reliability and validity. I always hate using these terms because people’s eyes glaze over when I say them, but it’s why tests are designed the way they are and why it’s so important to administer them correctly. A better understanding of assessment will help administrators evaluate the effectiveness of programs, too.
QUESTION: When it comes to reading, why is third grade such a critical moment in terms of assessment? Why don’t we catch more at-risk students earlier?
Dr. Farrall: Third grade is important. Jeanne Chall, a seminal researcher on the developmental stages of reading, said that in third and fourth grade, children move from learning to read to reading to learn. Many of us are familiar with that quote; it comes from her. It‘s the point at which we expect students to be able to pick up a textbook and read about social studies or volcanoes and actually use their decoding and word recognition skills to learn from text. Students who struggle with reading, lose this all-important vehicle for developing their vocabularies and their knowledge of the world. It is hard for them to participate in the classroom and acquire the more specialized knowledge that is only found in print.
We have the tools to identify children in kindergarten who are high-risk. Progress monitoring tools let us examine the underlying skills that support the development of reading and spelling. I have also come to believe that any child who has difficulty acquiring the alphabet should be given additional assistance. It’s that simple. But we blame early reading issues on a lot of things. We blame it on immaturity or ADHD, or low socioeconomic status, but mostly we blame parents. It is terribly unfair. Well, there is no research that says ADHD causes reading decoding problems—none whatsoever. It’s not about immaturity. If you have a learning disability—if some of your cognitive processes aren’t fully developed—you will come across as immature. We need to take children—who they are in all their glory and their weaknesses—and better understand why they do what they do. And that’s why a cognitive evaluation can be so helpful. The data that we take gives us insight into a child’s unique learning profile.
QUESTION: What are some issues with widely used literacy assessments?
Dr. Farrall: Many schools are doing progress monitoring, and most fall into two camps: those who take data that has been validated by the science of reading, and those who cling to outdated beliefs about how it is that children become readers. Monitoring progress on passages that are supplemented with pictures and asking children to guess at the words does not provide any useful data that helps us to teach children more effectively. Good readers do not guess at words; they use their knowledge of the code of print to identify words with increasing skill. Obtaining data on the skills that support the development of reading—phonemic awareness, decoding, fluency, comprehension, and oral language—permits educators to draw important conclusions regarding a child’s state of preparedness for reading and then supplement, alter, and even change instruction to ensure that we are working in concert with the reading brain.
The other main point, I would like to add, is that tests of reading comprehension, in and of themselves, are not particularly informative. When a child earns a low score on a test of reading comprehension, all we really know is that this child is not making meaning from text. That knowledge alerts us to a problem; it does not, however, help us understand what that problem is. Difficulties with reading comprehension arise from different causes. For most, challenges with reading comprehension are the direct result of an inability to read the words. For some, it is because of gaps in decoding skills and an inability to read with sufficient reading fluency to support comprehension. (Reading is like riding a bike. We have to read with sufficient speed in order to stay on the bike and focus on the content.) Still, others struggle because they lack oral language skill—a well-developed vocabulary and command of how we chunk information into phrases and clauses, otherwise known as syntax. Children struggle with comprehension for many different reasons, and we cannot fix those reading problems without a clear understanding of what has gone awry. This is where an evaluation comes in.
“Reading is like riding a bike. We have to read with sufficient speed in order to stay on the bike and focus on the content.”—Dr. Melissa Farrall
A knowledge of assessment permits schools and educators to make better and more timely decisions about their students, beginning with those questions of what should we test and how best to test it, and ending with discussions of individual strengths and weaknesses, and what they mean for performance in the classroom. An evaluation has the potential to help us put a child on the correct path to becoming an independent reader, critical thinker, and contributor to society.
Dr. Melissa Farrall, the Stern Center’s Director of Evaluation, is the author of “All About Tests and Assessments” and “Reading Assessment: Linking Language, Literacy, and Cognition.” She is the Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurological Sciences at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Dr. Farrall presents nationally on topics related to assessment, learning disabilities, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and intellectual functioning. She has performed more than 1,500 diagnostic evaluations of children and adolescents.
Her new course, Reading and Writing Assessments, helps educators assess reading, spelling, and writing, identify early signs of trouble, diagnose dyslexia and dysgraphia, and communicate test results to parents and other educators.