Teacher Scholar Voices

What’s a “Strong Reader”?: Looking Beyond Assessment Numbers

Teacher Scholar Voices

LauraAlvarez2Laura Alvarez is an 8th grade English teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy in Oakland Unified School District. In the third of her series of three connected blog posts, Laura discusses how looking at video data of student book groups prompted her to think in a more nuanced way about what makes a “strong” reader.

Listening to students’ conversations all year confirmed that the SRI was just one window into their reading abilities and that for some, like Elisa and Alejandro (described in my previous post), it was very incomplete.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has a Lexile score of 1080, far above Elisa and Alejandro’s May SRI scores of 751 and 687, respectively, but they were able to successfully engage with the text collaboratively. During this time, many of my stronger readers with lexile scores above 1000 were struggling with The Book Thief, which has a lexile score of only 730.

This led me to wonder what a Lexile score actually is and how a 30-minute computerized SRI test assigned them to my students. According to its creators, “A Lexile text measure is based on the semantic and syntactic elements of a text.” They caution that other factors affect how readers relate to books, including the book’s content and format and the reader’s interest, and that a lexile measure is only a starting point for selecting books.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 2.16.05 PMThis caution is essential. As teachers, we’re often given assessment results as if they are some holy grail, some magical window into our students’ true capabilities. An easily administered computer test, like the SRI, which prints out neat reports with the click of mouse and efficiently allows us to group students, is very alluring. But reading is complex, and we really can’t open up kids’ brains to see what’s going on when they interact with text. The best we can do is open up little windows to peak through.

While the SRI is one window and an easy one to collect, I found that perhaps a more accurate picture was actually listening to students as they talked through their questions about a text– once we got to the place where they were “clarifying the text”, not just the story, for each other. It’s much messier and more time consuming to collect and analyze, but an important picture of their abilities as readers, especially with the Common Core’s emphasis on text-based academic discussion and making evidence-based claims. Clearly, if we want to see how well students are able to do this, we need to assess them as they actually perform this skill.

The more troubling question for me is how our pictures of students’ competencies as readers are created over time and what consequences they have.  Earlier I wrote that students with lower SRI scores were more successful in more homogeneous groups, but were these really homogeneous groups? In reality, they were groups with peers who, from my teacher view of the class, seemed to have lower academic status as readers or students in general, both in the eyes of other students and teachers.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 2.24.48 PMHowever, in some cases, their SRI scores were just as high as their peers or, like Alejandro, they showed competence in their reading group performance that contradicted their scores. The question then is how to combat this low status so that we, as teachers, do not turn the incomplete windows that SRI data–or other test scores–provide into walls that limit students’ educational opportunities.

I haven’t found an answer, and doubt that a simple one exists, but using multiple sources of data can give us a more complete picture of students’ competencies. Instead of limiting students to text within their lexile range, data from audio recordings and my observations helped me provide responsive scaffolding to support their collaborative grappling with challenging text.