Better Reading Assessments

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I think assessment matters but grades matter much less.  The following excerpt from Hacking Literacy outlines a problem with literacy assessment (it can kill the love of reading) and a solution (design assessments that build community).

Reading assessment becomes a strictly extrinsic motivator in many classrooms. Teachers reward kids with grades to push them to read or they threaten failure for not reading enough. Conflating assessment with rewards causes student motivation to suffer. It’s human nature to take the shortest route to get the reward. When grades are the goal, assessment backfires, resulting in students reading SparkNotes, watching the movie version, asking friends to summarize a book, or simply lying about reading (see: fake reading). The last thing educators intend is to endorse lying and cheating, but an assessment system centered only on earning grades and extrinsic rewards encourages these behaviors.

An assessment system centered only on earning grades and extrinsic rewards encourages dishonest behaviors.

Some teachers might argue that they need traditional assessment practices to keep records and measure student growth. Even if they agree that grades and rewards should not be used to force reading upon kids, they are willing to accept poor assessment practices that are not in the students’ best interests for the sake of data. Yes, quizzes, reading logs, and multiple-choice tests provide quantifiable data and are convenient for updating a gradebook, but their efficiency does not mean that they are the best ways to assess learning.

Some assessment strategies are intended to offer information to the teacher and nothing more. While these assessments may be well intended, they often work against teachers’ efforts to help readers improve, simply because students approach the assessments as games, not as opportunities to deepen their reading experience. While assessment strategies designed for teacher convenience and efficiency might work for some students and teachers in some situations, they are unlikely to foster a love of reading. Few, if any, adult readers judge their performances based on multiple-choice quizzes or record their start and end times to determine fluency or commitment.

If we want to build a culture that inspires students to become lifelong readers, students should mimic the behaviors of real, engaged readers. Teachers can design assessments that yield information about a student’s knowledge and ability to read a text without killing the reading experience. Not only should teachers avoid assessments that encourage students to game the system, but they can effect assessments that deepen the culture of reading.

Effective reading assessments are predicated on determining student response to a text. Teachers need students to share their thinking about and knowledge of a text to measure their understanding. When students show what they know and can do, teachers gain information they can use for further instruction. Responses may take the form of speaking, writing, or another form of representation such as a piece of artwork, a design, or a song to demonstrate understanding of a text.

Students genuinely want to create quality responses when they communicate their experiences of a text to a real audience.

The first step in implementing assessments that build community is to create assessment opportunities that are intrinsically valuable to students. Students feel that an activity has inherent value when they communicate with their classmates about topics or texts that interest them and when they exercise their creativity to make interesting things. Students genuinely want to create quality responses when they communicate their experiences of a text to a real audience.

How? Design the assessment process to build community

To develop meaningful assessments, seek real-world models. You might begin by listing the behaviors a typical reader might exhibit outside the classroom. This list will become the basis for a system of authentic assessments. An engaged reader might:

  • Listen to a friend’s recommendations to evaluate the book’s suitability.
  • Read reviews on Goodreads or another social media platform.
  • Participate in discussions with other readers, addressing a book’s ambiguities, interesting moments, character motivations, or the author’s style.
  • Rate the book and write a review. This might be published on Goodreads, Amazon, a blog, or recorded in a private list of books.
  • Write to reflect on the reading experience, document observations about the content, and recommend it to certain types of readers. This might be published on a shared or personal blog.
  • Tell friends about the book to persuade them of its quality or to inform them of its content.

Teachers will find the items on this list valuable as they facilitate a culture of reading in their classrooms. Rather than simply being a measure of compliance, these activities deepen the reading experience for students, encouraging them to fashion strong identities as readers. They also provide valuable information about a student’s ability and knowledge, both during and after the reading process.

Good assessments deepen the reading experience for students, encouraging them to fashion strong identities as readers.

The benefit of this sort of activity to assess reading lies not only in the students’ authentic motivation to excel, but in building the community of readers. The student audience benefits from the work of their peers as they model personal and critical responses to texts. They see real-life exemplars sharing thoughts about texts in both formal and informal contexts.

The interactions between readers offer opportunities for evaluation, both with regard to the quality of student work and whether the text under consideration appeals to personal reading preferences. Integrating the process of assessment into the everyday work of the classroom in this way forges connections between students and establishes the classroom as a community of readers. Assessment no longer takes place in isolation; rather, the social nature of genuinely sharing thoughts about books creates an aspect of social accountability and normalcy to reading and finishing books. Reading becomes an expectation, an essential aspect of participating in class culture.

Adapting the habits of readers into assessment tools accomplishes two things: Students enjoy a more positive reading experience, and teachers gain insight into meaningful aspects of each student’s ability. Unlike multiple-choice quizzes, low-level questioning, and required essays, authentic assessments will inspire students to read more instead of relying on tricks and deception to earn grades without reading.

This article introduces some introductory ideas for shifting literacy assessment. As with many things in teaching, it’s not all or nothing. These ideas comprise some of the first steps towards moving assessment from an event that happens for teacher convenience or administrative mandate to an event that deepens the culture of reading in a classroom.

What are the most effective literacy assessments you’ve tried? What assessments get kids excited about reading?


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