Teach Reading, Not Testing: Best Practice in an Age of Accountability

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Liz Hollingworth & Hilleary M. Drake

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    Foreword: Teachers’ Pets or Teachers’ Frets?

    Educational Tests: Are they teachers’ pets or, these days, are they teachers’ frets? Putting it more prosaically, should today's teachers regard tests as the friends or enemies of their instruction efforts? This seemingly simple question, more potent than it first appears, requires a far-from-simple answer. Yet, providing a practical answer to the pet/fret puzzle is the central premise of an exciting new book about reading instruction by Liz Hollingworth and Hilleary Drake. Honestly, who could imagine a more propitious moment for a book about the teaching and the testing of reading to rumble onto our educational stage?

    Let's face it, when it comes to the way most teachers currently view externally imposed educational tests, this could surely be characterized as “the worst of times.” Most teachers view large-scale educational tests—particularly those tests linked to federal or state accountability programs—as downright nuisances or worse. There's not the slightest hint that today's test-dominated schooling somehow can also be regarded as “the best of times.”

    Droves of teachers now regard accountability tests as a bona fide blight on their educational landscapes. Externally imposed, most high-stakes exams are seen to constrain the curriculum, transform teaching into test-preparation, and remove much of the genuine joy that should be found in our classrooms. No, today's accountability tests do not rank high on most teachers’ popularity parades.

    It is against this pervasive, profoundly negative backdrop that Hollingworth and Drake have set out to suggest how externally imposed accountability tests could have a positive impact on elementary teachers’ reading instruction. These two authors have, clearly, chosen a potentially sour cherry on which to chew. But, as will become clear while reading the Hollingworth-Drake book, there are magic classroom moments when, if teachers truly understand what's going on with the external tests being used, results of those tests can spur a teacher to adopt the sorts of instructional choices likely to benefit students.

    At first glance, this seems to be a book about how to teach reading. But a closer look will reveal that it's a book about how to teach reading while dodging the adverse impact of inappropriate large-scale testing. Indeed, the book is peppered with suggestions about how to pick up positive payoffs from typical standardized reading tests. It's a book, in short, about how to use external tests as effectively as possible to enhance students’ reading skills.

    In the book's early pages, the authors tell us they want their book to (1) provide teaching tips for elementary reading classrooms, (2) ensure that all students are prepared for high-stakes reading tests, and (3) show teachers how to supply such test-preparation without “teaching to a test.” Those are three laudable aspirations. But you'll also see another significant theme slithering in and out of the book's chapters. Hollingworth and Drake, you see, want young children to love reading.

    That's right, these authors recognize not only the necessity for today's students to read—in school and once school is over—but also the immense pleasure that reading can bring to anyone who reads with reasonable comprehension. The book frequently reminds teachers how important it is to have students enjoy the act of reading. Whether children are reading a hardback book, a laptop computer screen, or the words wafted to them by tomorrow's next-generation electronic device—reading should gratify the reader. And, regrettably, readers’ gratification cannot be taken for granted. It, as with many covert variables, needs to be assessed.

    Perhaps, if we put as much assessment energy into measuring students’ attitudes toward reading as we put into measuring students’ ability to spot a paragraph's main idea, we'd stimulate more teachers to engender positive reading attitudes along with higher test scores. We do, in truth, measure what we treasure. But if we only yammer about getting students to groove on reading, and never get around to actually assessing students’ attitudes toward reading, then we send a strikingly clear message that students’ attitudes toward reading really aren't important.

    Hollingworth and Drake make a sincere effort to strip away the mystery from how large-scale reading tests are born. What few teachers recognize is that the most fundamental steps in the creation of an accountability test in reading are not remarkably different from what takes place when a teacher creates a classroom test of reading. Although reading tests typically emerge from big-box measurement companies—often behind closed doors—there's little going on when high-stakes reading tests are built that's incomprehensible to most teachers.

    This new book is loaded with practical suggestions regarding how elementary teachers can do a niftier job with their reading instruction. Of particular merit is the authors’ early-on treatment of alignment. This is because their analysis of the necessary match among curricular aims, classroom instructional activities, and high-stakes achievement tests sets the stage for their subsequent recommendations regarding how to avoid “teaching to the test.” Indeed, one of the book's continuing themes revolves around how teachers can help students score well on externally required accountability tests without those teachers’ turning their classrooms into test-preparation factories.

    Co-authored books often feature a pair of collaborating professors or, perhaps, two in-the-trenches teachers. In this book, however, we encounter a delightful blend of one university academic and one K-12 classroom teacher. It is clear that the assessment and instructional views of these two friends has, on occasion, been sharpened by the career experiences of their co-author. The result is a readable account of how teachers of reading can go about their work in a way that external tests can become, if not a flat-out friends, at least not lasting enemies.

    W.JamesPopham, Emeritus ProfessorUniversity of California, Los Angeles

    Acknowledgments

    Liz and Hilleary met in August 2002 in a graduate class on Educational Measurement and Evaluation at the University of Iowa, just as the No Child Left Behind Act was becoming law. In that class, we sat alongside teachers, school counselors, and future psychometricians to learn about the promises and limitations of testing.

    Since then, as reading teachers, we have watched with wonder and dismay as our colleagues have struggled with the pressures of the accountability movement.

    This book is written using stories from both of our classrooms. We know for sure that standardized reading tests are designed to measure a student's ability to read. What confuses us is how educators confuse test preparation with content knowledge. We hope this book helps reading teachers sort through the differences.

    The idea for this book stems from an article by Liz that was published in The Reading Teacher (Hollingworth, 2007), titled “Five Ways to Prepare for Standardized Tests Without Sacrificing Best Practice.” For the success of that article, we thank our friend and colleague, Janet Smith, a writing teacher for at-risk high schoolers and an excellent test editor.

    We have Liz's daughter, Emily, to thank for the illustrations that appear in Chapters 1 and 2.

    Thank you to the fifth graders at Rendezvous Elementary in Riverton, Wyoming, for helping us think through some of our ideas from a kid-perspective.

    A big thank you to Jim Stachowiak in the Iowa Center for Assistive Technology Education and Research (ICATER) lab for reading an early draft of Chapter 6, and for teaching the University of Iowa students every semester about the newest technologies to accommodate students with special needs.

    We would also like to thank our colleagues at Iowa Testing Programs for welcoming us both into the educational measurement and statistics community, despite our literacy backgrounds and aversion to statistics and graphing calculators. We especially appreciate the coaching from Professor Timothy Ansley, Director of the Iowa Tests of Educational Development, who likes to joke at inservices with teachers that he's starting to feel like test development has become the Dark Side of the Force. Thank you to Dr. Gayle Babbitt Bray, Senior Reading Editor for the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, for teaching us how to craft elegant reading tests.

    Despite the help from friends and colleagues, the ideas and opinions expressed in this book are ours alone and should not be interpreted as any official statement or position of Iowa Testing Programs or the University of Iowa.

    Liz would like to dedicate this book to the late Professor Albert N. Hieronymus, friend and former Director of the Iowa Basic Skills Testing Program from 1948 to 1987. Having been a classroom teacher himself, Al understood the value and importance of teachers (considering he met his wife when they were teaching together, and that several of his children and grandchildren grew up to be teachers and professors), and he envisioned the Iowa tests first and foremost as a tool to help teachers better meet the needs of their students. Al is a role model for the ways faculty in a college of education can impact public schools in a positive way through their research, teaching, and service.

    Hilleary would like to dedicate this book to Mrs. Donna Kuhlman, her eighth-grade English teacher at Canyon Junior High School. Mrs. Kuhlman saw early on in the testing craze in Texas in the early 1990s that she needed to protect her curriculum, her instructional time, and her students from the frenzy of test preparation. She was a motivating, challenging, and inspiring educator who refused to succumb to the pressures of test preparation. She knew that her students deserved and were capable of so much more than just the minimum to pass the test. Thank you Mrs. Kuhlman, as both a student and now a teacher, for believing there was no better test preparation than fabulous teaching. You were (and still are!) so right.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    • Kelly Aeppli-Campbell, K-12 Reading Supervisor
    • Escambia County School District
    • Escambia, FL
    • Norma Barber, English Teacher
    • Ukiah School District 80R
    • Ukiah, OR
    • Janice C. Brunson, Elementary Literacy Coordinator
    • Stafford County Public Schools
    • Stafford, VA
    • Lorenza Lara, Secondary Literacy Coordinator
    • Department of Teaching and Learning
    • Denver Public Schools
    • Denver, CO 80203
    • Paula J. Leftwich, Senior Director, K-12 Curriculum and Instruction
    • School District of Polk County
    • Jim Miles Professional Development Center
    • Lakeland, FL
    • Sandy Moore, English Teacher
    • Coupeville High School
    • Coupeville, WA
    • Kay Teehan, Literacy Coach/Media Specialist
    • Bartow Middle School
    • Bartow, FL
    • Kristina Turner, English Teacher
    • T.L. Hanna High School
    • Anderson, SC
    • Robert H. Williams, Jr., Associate Professor of English
    • Editor, Virginia English Bulletin
    • Radford University
    • Radford, VA

    About the Authors

    Liz Hollingworth (right) is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Iowa. Her research and teaching interests are centered on curriculum, leadership, and assessment. In particular, her work explores how federal school reform policies affect classroom practice. Her other books include Organization and Administration of Iowa Public and Private Schools and Complicated Conversations: Race and Ideology in an Elementary Classroom. Dr. Hollingworth grew up in San Diego, taught in Chicago and Michigan, and now lives in Iowa City with her husband, Andrew, and teenage daughter, Emily.

    Hilleary M. Drake (left) has taught fifth grade for six years in Riverton, Wyoming. Growing up in Texas during the initial wave of the “testing craze,” she understands just how harmful it can be when testing drives instruction. She earned her undergraduate degree from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and her master's degree from the University of Iowa. While at Iowa she worked with Iowa Testing Progams as a graduate assistant, gaining behind-the-scene knowledge of the testing industry. Hilleary enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with friends and family, especially her husband, Jay.

  • Resource A: Answers to Quizzes

    These Quizzes are designed to get you and your colleagues talking about best practice. If you want to assign yourself points, then give yourself 5 points if you said D, 4 points if you said E, 3 points for B, 2 points for C, and if you said A, then you don't get any points at all, because that was the worst answer! It's very possible that capitalization exercises will help fill the holes in Mrs. Brown's lesson plans. Once you have conducted your alignment study and had a team consultation with the other teachers in your area, you should have enough background information to analyze the data from the high-stakes test. Giving students practice items is not the same as teaching them the content.

    These end-of-chapter quizzes are designed to get you talking with your colleagues. There are no right answers. When a school administrator like Mr. Clinton institutes a buildingwide initiative like this, he or she usually has decided that the way the teachers have been doing their job needs to be updated. In a case like this, the most open, mature, and collegial answer is B. Similarly, if you teach older students in an elementary building, you have a responsibility to advocate for their developmental needs. This includes asking the administration to consider option D, because baby work for older kids will get you nowhere. The teacher who answered A may be really frustrated with his or her job. Try to be supportive of district-wide school improvement initiatives until you have enough information to know how they are going to affect classroom practice. However, you may be in a building where the principal introduces a new initiative every semester. In that case, the best answer for you is to offer a gentle challenge to the principal in the form of C. If you answered E, you are not open to change. This might be because you are the only person in the building preserving best practice! In that case, the answer for you sadly just may be F.

    This is actually a true story. My student, Joe, tried every single one of these during the course of his exam. Joe couldn't get the Dragon software to work well, so he became frustrated. After a half hour of trying to get it to work, he asked for help in the office. The school secretary was happy to type for him, but Joe wasn't used to dictating his thoughts to a live person. As a result, after about half an hour, he became discouraged at the quality of the work he was providing. By the time I stuck my head in to the office to see how he was doing, Joe had asked the secretary to leave and was typing with his left hand. He was visibly angry. At that point, I told Joe to just stop and tell me in his own words what he thought the answers were to the items. It took a lot longer to test him orally, but it turned out he really knew his stuff. The incident made me think about UDL, Universal Design for Learning, and asking students to write essays to demonstrate social studies knowledge. The next year, I had choices for a final project that included a written essay, as well as other end-of-course products that would let students demonstrate their learning, such as an interactive map using PowerPoint or to using the flip phone to make a movie reenacting an event from our history lessons.

    Your school context is really going to affect how you handle this. Ideally, you should have an open relationship with your school administration, a relationship that allows for a conversation about the ways new initiatives are measured for efficacy. Some mix of D and E would be the best. If you decide that you are going to fully participate with this motivation program, in an effort to help your principal get the best data possible from this exercise, then your best answer is C. B is sort of a cop-out version of C. If you are going to participate, then go for it. The worst thing you can do is A, undermining the program before it even has a chance to get off the ground.

    What is the purpose of your book clubs? Hopefully, your main objective is to provide students opportunities to engage in real-life reading activities. Of course, all of us have had a few students who, for whatever reason, needed to be split up to get any work done. But if it is at all possible, some combination of A and B would be the best answer to this scenario. Read the book titles, give the book talks, and then let the students choose what group they want to be in using whatever criteria they want, just as adults do—and maybe the girls just want to be with their friends. I often read books that excited friends give me, even if I might not think I will like the book. Remember: the goal is to encourage a lifelong love for reading.

    I hope you answered D. Remember that best practice research tells us the best way to learn new vocabulary is to read.

    Please refer to Chapter 9, where we list some other great tips for how to teach vocabulary.

    Resource B: Five Ways to Teach Vocabulary

    • Read, read, read! Most vocabulary words are learned from context. The more words you're exposed to, the better vocabulary you will have.
    • Improve your context skills. Research shows that the vast majority of words are learned from context. To improve your context skills, pay close attention to how words are used. Get in the habit of looking up words you don't know. If you have a dictionary program on your computer, keep it open and handy. Use a thesaurus when you write to find the word that fits best.
    • Practice, practice, practice! Learning a word won't help very much if you promptly forget it. Research shows that it takes from ten to twenty repetitions to really make a word part of your vocabulary. It helps to write the word—both the definition and a sentence you make up using the word—on an index card that can be reviewed later. As soon as you learn a new word, start using it. Review your index cards periodically to see if you have forgotten any of your new words.
    • Make up as many associations and connections as possible. For example, the word BUFFOON can be made to look like a clown, which is a synonym:

    • Play with words. Have word games in your classroom for your students to use in free time. Some favorites are Scrabble, Boggle, Apples to Apples, Balderdash, Bananagrams, word searches, and crossword puzzles.

    General Glossary of Assessment Terms

    Accommodation: A change in the way a test is administered to students with special needs. In general, students are assessed on the same tests and the same curriculum material as the rest of the students. An example of an accommodation would be to allow extra time on an unspeeded (untimed) test or a quiet place with few distractions to take a test.

    Accountability: Being responsible for one's actions within an educational system.

    Achievement test: An assessment that measures what students know and are able to do in a curricular area.

    Alignment: When what is being taught is aligned with what is being tested. Alignment can be reported as a matter of the degree to which a curriculum's scope and sequence matches a testing program's evaluation measures. Similarly, alignment can refer to the degree to which a teacher's instruction matches the given curriculum.

    Aptitude test: An assessment that measures a student's ability to learn or acquire a certain skill or ability.

    Assessment: Any method or procedure used to gather information about behaviors. Qualitative assessments use verbal descriptions of behaviors while quantitative assessments yield numerical estimates, or measurements.

    Assistive technology: A device or service that may be used by a person with a disability to perform specific tasks, improve functional capabilities, and become more independent.

    Authentic assessment: Assessment of student learning within the context of real-life problems and situations.

    AYP: Adequate yearly progress. AYP is a diagnostic tool that determines how schools need to improve and where financial resources should be allocated.

    Best practice: Curriculum instruction and assessment that can be supported by quantitative and qualitative research.

    Bias: When a difference in test scores can be attributed to demographic variables like gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.

    Competency test: An assessment that measures whether or not a student has the minimum skills and knowledge in—for example, a driver's test.

    Criterion referenced: Scores are reported as skills mastery, either as pass or no pass, for a level of performance on a skills continuum. A score depends on a preestablished standard or criterion.

    Cut scores: Also known as a passing score or passing point. A single point on a score continuum that differentiates between classifications along the continuum. The most common cut score, which many are familiar with, is a score that differentiates between the classifications of pass and fail on a professional or educational test.

    Differentiated instruction: Providing students with different approaches to acquire new material regardless of level of ability.

    Disaggregate: Test scores can be analyzed either aggregated (as a big group, such as a district) or disaggregated, broken down into smaller chunks called subgroups and special populations (such as race, ethnicity, free and reduced lunch, etc.). NCLB requires schools to compare the scores of certain populations of students against one another to examine achievement gaps.

    Enacted curriculum: The content actually taught by teachers and studied by students. It might stand in contrast to the intended curriculum.

    Epistemology: The study of the acquisition of knowledge, the social reproduction of selected knowledge, and the consequences of the acquisition and use of knowledge.

    ESEA: An acronym for the Elementary Secondary Education Act 1965. Authorizes funds for professional development, instructional materials, resources to support educational programs, and parental involvement. The Act was originally authorized through 1970; however, the government has reauthorized the act every five years since its enactment. The current reauthorization of ESEA is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

    Face validity: Whether or not a test looks like it measures what it says it is measuring.

    Formative assessment: Provides feedback about errors and misunderstandings of a lesson. Usually used by classroom teachers to make adjustments to teaching, to adapt lessons, and to individualize instruction.

    Grade equivalent: A score that indicates the performance level of a student on a norm-referenced test in terms of grade level and month: for example, 3.5 (third grade, fifth month).

    Growth model: A way of measuring student achievement goals by measuring students’ progress from year to year.

    Horizontal alignment: The degree to which an assessment matches the corresponding content standards for a subject area at a particular grade level.

    Individualized education program (IEP): Students who receive special education and related services will have an IEP that is created by a team of teachers, administrators, parents, and often the student to make sure that the educational program is designed to meet the student's unique needs.

    Intended curriculum: For K-12 education, the intended curriculum is captured most explicitly in state content standards—statements of what every student must know and be able to do by some specified point in time. It may stand in contrast with the Enacted Curriculum.

    Interrater reliability: The extent to which two different people obtain the same result when using the same instrument to measure a student's achievement. Interrater reliability indices are expressed as a decimal from 0 to 1, with scores closest to 1 considered to be high.

    Learning progressions: The sequence set of subskills a student will learn in a given unit of study.

    Lexiles: A reliability score created by MetaMetrics, a company in North Carolina. Lexile scores often appear on score reports for high-stakes tests created for NCLB reporting purposes.

    Modifications: A change to the curriculum when the goals or expectations are beyond the student's level of ability. The assessments for students with a modified curriculum will be fundamentally different from those of the rest of the class.

    Multiple measures: Because no one test can ever tell you everything you would want to know about a student's knowledge, ability, or aptitude, educators use more than one piece of information to assess what a student knows and is able to do. Multiple measures include classroom assessments, portfolios, projects, and so on.

    NAEP: An acronym for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is an assessment given to a nationally representative sample of school children in the United States to measure what students know and can do in mathematics, reading, and science for Grades 4, 8, and 12. The NAEP is created by the Institute for Educational Sciences (IES), a division of the U.S. Department of Education (created in 2002). The IES currently has contracted out the test development process to Educational Testing Service (ETS) in New Jersey.

    No Child Left Behind (NCLB): An acronym for the legislation that was passed in 2001 in the United States that mandated that every state develop a set of standards for teaching math, reading, and science and have a system of assessment in place to measure student achievement and hold low-performing schools accountable for chronic poor performance.

    Norm referenced: Compares examinee performance to the average performance of others in an identified reference group.

    Performance assessment: Requires the demonstration of skill in applied, procedural, or open-ended settings. Performance assessments can be used to ask students to use knowledge from several areas to produce something.

    Portfolio assessment: A collection of student work that reflects growth and breadth and includes student reflections.

    Psychometrician: An expert in the theory and technique of educational and psychological measurement, which includes the measurement of knowledge, abilities, attitudes, and personality traits. A psychometrician holds expertise in the research and development of measurement instruments like questionnaires and tests.

    Raw score: Score on an assessment before any statistical transformations have been made, such as the number correct.

    Readability: A rough estimate of the reading skill required to read a text, usually presented as a grade level.

    Reliability: The consistency of test scores on different items that cover the same skills or the consistency of an instrument by raters or observers.

    Response to Intervention (RTI): An educational process that evaluates how well students respond to academic instruction, and then uses those student responses to guide educational decisions.

    Scale score: Raw test scores are mapped onto a more meaningful and interpretable scale.

    Standard setting: An official research study conducted by an organization that sponsors tests to determine a cut score for the test. To be legally defensible and meet the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, a cut score cannot be arbitrarily determined, it must be empirically justified. For example, the organization cannot merely decide that the cut score will be 70% correct. Instead, a study is conducted to determine what score best differentiates the classifications of examinees, such as competent vs. incompetent. Standard-setting studies are often performed using focus groups of five to fifteen subject matter experts that represent key stakeholders for the test. For example, in setting cut scores for educational testing, experts might be instructors familiar with the capabilities of the student population for the test.

    Standardized: When tests are administered in a uniform manner in all schools. It is particularly important for the administrations to be standardized, if the scores from students are going to be compared against one another.

    Standards: A body of subject matter content that is usually legally mandated and predetermined by a state department of education. Also conceptual or factual criteria representing knowledge, skills, or attitudes that are established by an authority.

    Standards-based test: An assessment designed to measure student achievement in a content domain that is described by content standards.

    Stanines: A 1 to 9 scale of percentages used to rank student performance on a standardized test to the performance of other students.

    Summative assessment: A cumulative assessment that summarizes the accumulation of knowledge to that point. Can be used to grade student achievement in a course.

    Think-aloud strategies: Students are asked to say out loud what they are thinking when they are reading so that the teacher can observe what is going on in the student's head when he or she reads. This can also be reversed, by the way, as a teaching strategy. Try to do a think aloud to model making meaning from a text with your students so they can see what skilled readers do.

    Universal design for learning: An approach to designing assessments to make them accessible to the broadest spectrum of students. For example, a test might use only two colors to be sure that the design of the items does not inadvertently penalize students who are color blind.

    Validity: The appropriateness, meaningfulness, and usefulness of the inferences that can be made from a test's scores. Validity in assessment refers to the extent to which test scores or responses measure the attributes they were intended to measure.

    Vertical alignment: The alignment of different parts of an entire education system—from grade to grade—reflects the logical consistent order for teaching the content in a subject area.

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