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Common Core State Writing Standards

For years, English teachers have struggled with essay terminology. Fittingly, the word essay derives from the French verb essayer which roughly means “to try” or “to attempt.” Some teachers have attempted rather precise definitions and limitations of the genre. More recently, state exams have become the tails that wag the dogs in terms of essay classification. In California, for example, the California Standards Test even refers to a multi-paragraph summary as an essay.

Now, we have a different approach to defining the essay. The Common Core State Writing Standards have used a rather utilitarian approach to categorize essays into two classifications: argument and informational/explanatory writing. (The third writing classification, narrative, is acknowledged and brief mention is made of poetry and “other forms.”) The approach used by the English-language Arts committee was to examine the writing assignments of freshman English college professors then define the essay accordingly for the purposes of the Common Core State Writing Standards. The committee used the 2009 ACT national curriculum survey of postsecondary instructors of composition, freshman English, and survey of American literature courses (ACT, Inc., 2009) as reference and found that “write to argue or persuade readers” was virtually tied with “write to convey information” as the most important type of writing needed by incoming college students. Hence the two essay classifications.

Following is an executive summary of the two essay classifications, using the language of the document within my own organizational structure. The full document (Appendix A) is found here.

Argument

Definition

Arguments are used for many purposes—to change the reader’s point of view, to bring about some action on the reader’s part, or to ask the reader to accept the writer’s explanation or evaluation of a concept, issue, or problem. An argument is a reasoned, logical way of demonstrating that the writer’s position, belief, or conclusion is valid.

Application within Subject Disciplines Grades 6-12

  • In English language arts, students make claims about the worth or meaning of a literary work or works. They defend their interpretations or judgments with evidence from the text(s) they are writing about.
  • In history/social studies, students analyze evidence from multiple primary and secondary sources to advance a claim that is best supported by the evidence, and they argue for a historically or empirically situated interpretation.
  • In science, students make claims in the form of statements or conclusions that answer questions or address problems. Using data in a scientifically acceptable form, students marshal evidence and draw on their understanding of scientific concepts to argue in support of their claims.

Grades K-5

Although young children are not able to produce fully developed logical arguments, they develop a variety of methods to extend and elaborate their work by providing examples, offering reasons for their assertions, and explaining cause and effect. These kinds of expository structures are steps on the road to argument. In grades K–5, the term opinion is used to refer to this developing form of argument.

 

Informational/Explanatory Writing

Definition

Informational/explanatory writing conveys information accurately. This kind of writing serves one or more closely related purposes: to increase readers’ knowledge of a subject, to help readers better understand a procedure or process, or to provide readers with an enhanced comprehension of a concept. To produce this kind of writing, students draw from what they already know and from primary and secondary sources. With practice, students become better able to develop a controlling idea and a coherent focus on a topic and more skilled at selecting and incorporating relevant examples, facts, and details into their writing. They are also able to use a variety of techniques to convey information, such as naming, defining, describing, or differentiating different types or parts; comparing or contrasting ideas or concepts; and citing an anecdote or a scenario to illustrate a point.

Application within Subject Disciplines Grades K-12

Informational/explanatory writing addresses matters such as the following:

  • Types (What are the different types of poetry?)
  • Components (What are the parts of a motor?)
  • Size, function, or behavior (How big is the United States? What is an X-ray used for? How do penguins find food?)
  • How things work (How does the legislative branch of government function?)
  • Why things happen (Why do some authors blend genres?).

Informational/explanatory writing includes a wide array of genres, including academic genres such as literary analyses, scientific and historical reports, summaries, and precis writing as well as forms of workplace and functional writing such as instructions, manuals, memos, reports, applications, and resumes. As students advance through the grades, they expand their repertoire of informational/explanatory genres and use them effectively in a variety of disciplines and domains.

Comparing and Contrasting the Essay Classifications

Although information is provided in both arguments and explanations, the two types of writing have different aims.

  • Arguments seek to make people believe that something is true or to persuade people to change their beliefs or behavior. Explanations, on the other hand, start with the assumption of truthfulness and answer questions about why or how. Their aim is to make the reader understand rather than to persuade him or her to accept a certain point of view. In short, arguments are used for persuasion and explanations for clarification.
  • Like arguments, explanations provide information about causes, contexts, and consequences of processes, phenomena, states of affairs, objects, terminology, and so on. However, in an argument, the writer not only gives information but also presents a case with the “pros” (supporting ideas) and “cons” (opposing ideas) on a debatable issue. Because an argument deals with whether the main claim is true, it demands empirical descriptive evidence, statistics, or definitions for support. When writing an argument, the writer supports his or her claim(s) with sound reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

Narrative Writing

Narrative writing conveys experience, either real or imaginary, and uses time as its deep structure. It can be used for many purposes, such as to inform, instruct, persuade, or entertain. In English language arts, students produce narratives that take the form of creative fictional stories, memoirs, anecdotes, and autobiographies. Over time, they learn to provide visual details of scenes, objects, or people; to depict specific actions for example, movements and gestures).

Creative Writing beyond Narrative

The narrative category does not include all of the possible forms of creative writing, such as many types of poetry. The Standards leave the inclusion and evaluation of other such forms to teacher discretion.

My Take

Although much makes sense in the Common Core State Writing Standards in terms of essay classification (I happen to use the same classifications in my Teaching Essay Strategies writing curriculum, teaching four argumentative and four informational/explanatory essays), much of the document assumes things not yet proven. A few examples should suffice.

  • Who is to say that college English professors are the experts in defining the essay? The experiences of my three sons at U.C. Berkeley, U.C. San Diego, and San Diego State would prove otherwise. With few exceptions, the writing topics and prompts assigned as papers and exams were uniformly contrived, artificial, and downright incoherent for both assignments and exams, leaving my sons, me, and my English high school and middle school colleagues shaking our collective heads. Basing the K-12 writing standards on how and what college professors teach may be a shaky foundation.
  • Who is to say whether the personal essay, narratives, and poetry are less important than argument and informational/explanatory writing?
  • Other forms of writing may be more developmentally appropriate at different grade levels and may actually serve as effective scaffolds to the two essay classifications.
  • Application of the these essay classifications may work fine within the social sciences; however, our science colleagues may find these forms constraining, and perhaps out of sync with their rigid scientific methodologies.

Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies, at www.penningtonpublishing.com.

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Race to the Top Winners and Losers

Results are in and the winners/losers in the Race to the Top are following: Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina. Each is now a finalist, competing for its share of the $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top funding. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan says he expects “10 to 15” of these finalists will receive a piece of the pie. Larger states are eligible for more. For example, California is eligible for up to $700 million. So why winners/losers? After all, shouldn’t the education establishment get its share of federal monies? With teacher furloughs, increased class sizes, budget cuts… isn’t it smart to “play ball” with Obama? Isn’t any educational reform better than no educational reform?

Perhaps no.

Teachers unions have opposed the qualification process and application components in the Race to the Top initiative. Increasing parent access/influence and charter schools. Limiting tenure rights. Devolving district and state autonomy to federal oversight, for example national standards. Inequitable teacher incentives/pay for work in lower performing schools. Hardly rank-and-file/teacher priorities.

Additionally, the carrot and stick approach of the Race to the Top competition has strained already underfunded and under-resourced districts and state departments of education. The application timelines forced a “drop everything and get to it” response at both local and state levels. Putting important long-term reform initiatives aside, these educational entities have been pressured into ignoring the buy-in of student/parent/community/teacher stakeholders to go after the money. For example, in California the latest application was written by only seven of the 967 district superintendents.

Furthermore, the Race to the Topic initiative has produced a sadly ironic twist. To increase equity, especially for lower performing schools/students, it has employed a highly inequitable process. In her July 27 article, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post provides this insight:

The “Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn” released yesterday by a coalition of civil rights groups speaks directly to fundamental differences over education policy, including those over charter schools, teacher evaluation, and, perhaps most importantly, resource equity.

It said about the competitive nature of Race to the Top, the administration’s chief education initiative to date:

“If education is a civil right, children in ‘winning’ states should not be the only ones who have the opportunity to learn in high-quality environments. Such an approach reinstates the antiquated and highly politicized frame for distributing federal support to states that civil rights organizations fought to remove in 1965.”

The Education Department sent me some facts after Duncan’s speech today that speak to this issue. Here they are:

*The 19 finalists for Race to the Top Round 2 alone enroll nearly two-thirds of all African American and Hispanic students in the United States. Put another way, this 37 percent of US states (including D.C.) enroll 63 percent of our African American and Hispanic students.

*The 21 states (19 finalists plus Tennessee and Delaware, which won Race funding in the first round] have 5.4 million black students and 6.5 million Hispanic students. This represents 66 percent of black students and 64 percent of Hispanic students nationwide.

*Aggregated: 65 percent of the nation’s minority students are in these 21 states.

So if all 19 finalists actually are eventually declared winners in the second round (which is not expected), then we’ll only have to worry about the other 35 percent of minority students being left out of the funding spree. So much for equity.

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/equity/duncan-being-too-modest.html

Mark Pennington is the author of the Pennington Publishing Blog and numerous ELA/Reading resources for educational professionals committed to differentiating instruction according to diagnostic and formative data. For free diagnostic assessments, flashcards, and instructional materials, as well as his highly-recommended curricula, check out www.penningtonpublishing.com. Refer back often to the Pennington Publishing Blog for insightful articles and educational tips.

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The Dos and Don’ts of Differentiated Instruction

With the Response to Intervention (RTI) model now being incorporated into many school districts today, it has become increasingly important to help frame the differentiated instruction (DI) discussion in an objective manner that won’t promote narrow agendas and will encourage teachers to experiment with DI in their own classrooms. Before I offer some tips on the dos and don’ts of differentiated instruction, it makes sense to address the key reasons that some teachers resist this educational approach.

Why Some Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction

1. Some teachers resist implementing DI because they wrongly perceive that managing diverse instructional strategies and on-going assessments would necessitate a veteran superstar teacher with no life outside of the classroom. Some teachers believe that DI requires too much preparation, assessment, correction, and record-keeping. These may have been truisms years ago, but clever teachers have since developed effective short-cuts to planning, assessment, and paper work. DI need not be a cause of teacher “burn-out” and teachers of all ability and experience levels can begin differentiated instruction with proper training and support. Furthermore, DI is not an “all or nothing” proposition, as some would lead us to believe. Most teachers layer in different aspects of DI over time.

2. The increasing emphasis on rigorous standards-based instruction and teaching to high-stakes tests have clearly prevented some teachers from implementing DI. In today’s educational climate, teachers do not want to be accused of “dumbing-down” instruction. However, DI can provide better access to those rigorous standards and greater success on those high-stakes tests, if done right. Differentiated instruction adjusts the focus from teaching to learning. Teachers can help students “catch up” through scaffolded instruction, while the students concurrently “keep up” with rigorous grade-level instruction.

3. Some teachers resist implementing differentiated instruction by attempting to create  homogeneous classes. Early-late reading and math instruction in the elementary grades and tracked ability classes in the secondary schools are designed to provide qualitatively different instruction for different student levels. However, analyzing the data of any subject-specific diagnostic assessment will indicate that students have a wide variety of relative strengths and weaknesses in any subject and that “different student levels” is an arbitrary and unworkable concept. Even within highly-tracked programs, DI is absolutely necessary because each student is unique with different skill sets and learning needs.

*For the complete article on Why Teachers Resist Differentiated Instruction, check out this link.

The Whats of Differentiated Instruction

Don’ts

1. Don’t Trust the Standardized Test Data. The results of standardized tests provide “macro” data that can assess program quality or level of student achievement relative to the composite scores of other students. The data cannot pinpoint the “micro” data of student strengths and weaknesses in the skills and content that teachers need to assess. Even standards-based assessments provide only generic data, not the “nuts and bolts” discreet skills analyses that can effectively inform instruction.

2. Don’t Trust Your Colleagues. Teaching is an independent practice. No matter how many years we have eaten lunch with our teacher peers, no matter how many conferences, department or grade-level meetings we have attended together, no matter how many of the same teaching resources we share, and no matter how specific our scope and sequences of instruction align, we cannot assume that the students of our colleagues have mastered the skills that we need to build upon.

3. Don’t Trust Yourself. Making instructional decisions based upon “what the students know and what they don’t know” requires objective data to inform our judgments. There are just too many variables to trust even the best teacher intuition: family situations, language, culture, school experience, just to name a few. If we are honest, even veteran teachers are frequently fooled by sophisticated student coping mechanisms and cultural stereotypes.

Dos

1. Use relevant and specific diagnostic assessments. Eliminate the trust factor with good diagnosis. Record and analyze the student data to inform direct and differentiated instruction, including what skills and concepts need to be taught, how much time needs to be spent upon instruction, who needs intensive instruction and who needs only review, and who has already mastered the skill or concept. Use whole-class, multiple-choice assessments whenever possible, to minimize assessment and grading times.

2. Develop quick and frequent formative assessments to gauge student mastery of your teaching objectives. Use the data to inform and adapt your instruction accordingly. Learning is the heart and soul of DI, not teaching.

3. Establish and use a collaborative model to determine the whats of instruction. Include students, parents, and teaching colleagues in data analysis. Collaboration is essential to successful implementation of DI and RTI.

The Hows of Differentiated Instruction

 

Don’ts

1. Just because DI is student-centered, don’t go overboard on adjusting the how of instruction to correspond to student learning preferences. Learning styles, multi-sensory instruction, and multiple intelligences are long-standing educational constructs, but are based upon minimal research. Learning preference inventories do not provide reliable diagnostics about how to differentiate instruction. For example, auditory and visual processing deficits can be diagnosed, but no research has yet demonstrated which instructional strategies work best for these learners.

2. Don’t devolve all decision-making to student choice regarding how they choose to learn. Students don’t know what they don’t know. To devolve the how of instruction to student choice is to abrogate our responsibilities as informed and objective decision-makers. Do we really want to entrust the how of instruction to an eight-year old student and agree that Johnny knows best how to learn his multiplication tables? Do we really want to allow middle schoolers to choose whether they can listen to their iPods® while they silently read their social studies textbooks?

3. Don’t allow the hows of learning to destroy class management or time-on-task instructional efficiency. We should always perform a cost-benefit analysis on how we differentiate instruction. Good teachers weigh the needs of the class and the needs of the individual students, and then make decisions accordingly. Sometimes the optimal instructional methodology needs to be ditched and substituted with another because the students or teacher just can’t handle learning or teaching that way that day.

Dos

1. Consider the needs and differences of the learners. We never want to limit students to our own imaginations. Students do have important insights into their own learning that we need to consider. Teaching students to monitor and experiment with how they learn best is invaluable to their development as life-long learners. This kind of self-reflection can be promoted by teaching metacognitive strategies, such as self-questioning during independent reading or self-assessment on an analytical writing rubric.

2. Model different ways to learn skills and concepts. For example, in composition, some students prefer to draft first and revise thereafter; others prefer to integrate the drafting and revision process. Wouldn’t a teacher-led “think-aloud” that models these two composition processes make sense? Students learn which option or combination thereof works best for them through teacher direction, not from a sink or swim, work-it-out-yourself, trial and error process.

3. Use a variety of instructional methodologies. Effective DI instruction adapts to the needs of the learners. For some skills or concepts, DI involves direct, explicit instruction to pre-teach or re-teach concepts. For others, DI is best accomplished in heterogeneous cooperative groups or homogeneous ability groups. For still others, DI requires individualized instruction, via targeted worksheets and one-on-one review.

At its core, DI is simply good, sound teaching. Some proponents seem to intimate that DI is the ultimate educational panacea. However, no educational approach absolutely ensures student success. Unfortunately, it is all too often the case that you “can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Some students exposed to the best DI will continue to fail. But, directly addressing the individual learning needs of our students, rather than teaching a class as though all individuals in it were basically alike, offers our best chance of success for all.

The writer of this article, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of teaching resources to differentiate instruction in the fields of reading and English-language arts. His comprehensive curricula: Teaching Grammar and Mechanics, Teaching Essay Strategies, Teaching Reading Strategies, and Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary help teachers differentiate instruction with little additional teacher prep and/or specialized training.

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Don’t Rely on Rigor and Relevance

Political and Economic Context

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, public schools have felt mounting pressure to increase the levels of instructional rigor and academic success for all students. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, signed into law in 2002, has forced states to reevaluate their standards and assessment programs according to federal criteria, and adjust to the adequate yearly progress (AYP) provision of NCLB. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) and now the Race to the Top funding has brought additional federal carrot and stick measures to induce states to follow federal guidelines and initiatives. Over the last few months, state legislatures have raced to approve needed changes to qualify for federal dollars. Forty states and the District of Colombia made the federal deadline of January 19 to enable them to access federal funds.

Concurrently, concerns about the growing Achievement Gap, especially with respect to underperforming African-American and Latino sub-groups have come to the national consciousness. Traditionally liberal voices have begun supporting traditionally conservative, anti-public school proposals such as charter schools, open enrollment, vouchers, and teacher accountability-via-assessment. The Obama Administration and U.S. Department of Education support these initiatives. The National Education Association is reeling.

For example, the ARRA funds are to be used to improve student achievement and close the achievement gap through “shared commitment and responsibility.” What is this process defined by the federal government?

  • Adopting rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments
  • Establishing data systems and using data for improvement
  • Increasing teacher effectiveness and equitable distribution of effective teachers
  • Turning around the lowest-performing schools
  • Improving results for all students, including early childhood learning, extended learning time, use of technology, preparation for college, and school modernization http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=204335,00.html

In other words, more and more governmental accountability and less autonomy for school districts, administrators, and teachers.

School districts are failing during the current economic downturn. Deep in debt, districts are enacting furlough days with the consent of powerless teacher unions. Compromises are made to ensure some sort of survival. Districts and teachers are devolving more control to states and the federal government for money to keep afloat. Public education is in crisis mode.

Academic Context

As a precursor to this crisis mode, the in vogue educational leadership trend was the Rigor and Relevance Movement. Popularized over the last decade by Bill Daggett and the International Center for Leadership in Education, with concurrent support from the Institute of Education Sciences (the federal research agency) arm of the U.S. Department of Education, the movement has swept the nation. Largely as a result of historical timing, the Rigor and Relevance (and now, relationships) Movement has become the de facto solution to the ills of public education. Administrators and teachers throughout the United States are using the Rigor and Relevance quadrants to analyze instructional effectiveness.

A Few Working Definitions

Although the movement is pervasive, it is not monolithic. No one holds the trademark on the terms rigor and relevance. In fact, rigor is variously defined. Some define rigor in terms of end-goals, such as high standards or high expectations. Others define rigor as a set of competences as measured by high stakes assessments. Some cross-over adherents from the Essential Schools movement have defined the term as the mastery of educational concepts. Often, the term is defined in terms of process-goals. Instructional methodologies are featured prominently in discussions about rigor. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a favorite, as well as any instructional strategies that elicit critical thinking, deep understanding, exploration, and research.

The usage of relevance also varies. Relevance for students refers to interdisciplinary and contextual learning situations directly connected to real-world problems ranging from routine to complex. Relevance for teachers and administrators implies establishing a vision and mission, and moving forward on school improvement and change initiatives that have purpose and are focused on the agreed-upon needs of that particular school and student population.” http://rebel6.blogspot.com/2010/01/3-rs-not-just-for-students.html David Britten January 3, 2010. So, relevance refers to real-world applications, as well as to the needs and interests of student and school cultures.

Critique of the Rigor and Relevance Movement

As is frequently the case, any educational reform movement produces nuggets that can and should be mined by thoughtful public school stakeholders. However, the harder-to-mine gold often remains, as the placer (surface-level) gold is depleted.

Rigor

Much of what passes for rigor is arbitrary, subjective, and contrived.  For example, proponents of rigor usually align themselves with those who advocate standards-based education. Such standards beg the question on many fronts. Why don’t states all agree on the same standards, if there is such a broad educational consensus as to what they should be? What happens when the consensus changes? Which standards are most/least important? Do standards really reflect broader educational priorities, such as can the student read, write, do math, and think well? What prerequisites are necessary to demonstrate mastery of the standards? Why are certain standards appropriate at certain grade levels? Who decided that a standard is a standard and for what reasons?

Rigor that is not arbitrary, subjective, and contrived consists of instructional content and strategies determined through direct diagnostic and formative assessments of individual students, not arbitrary “Below Basic,” “Basic”, “Proficient,” or “Advanced” categorizations derived from annual standards-based assessments. Although we teach subject matter (content), we also teach children. Rigorous  teachers find out what students need and differentiate instruction to match those needs. Students experience success by successive approximation. Teachers challenge students just enough to help students take risks, but not too much to overwhelm them. Success builds upon success.

Relevance

Much of the renewed interest in relevance has developed from panic-attack reactions to the highly publicized Achievement Gap. Well-intentioned, teacher-induced guilt brings the “it must be my fault that I am not meeting student needs” response. Teachers rush to develop “real-world” career applications to lessons on primary numbers. Teachers ditch archaic Shakespeare for analyses of current hip hop songs. Teachers spend inordinate amounts of time establishing a motivational framework to convince students to memorize the scientific method or key elements from the Periodic Table of Elements. Teachers drop rules of classroom decorum to be culturally sensitive to students who have the proclivity to engage in impulsive outbursts.

Perhaps another view of relevance should be considered. Renowned reading researcher, Anita Archer, categorizes the Achievement Gap as largely a misnomer. She says what we really have is a “literacy gap.” I tend to agree. Until we address this fundamental issue, issues such as instructional strategies to establish relevance are futile. In fact, content literacy should be the true means of attaining educational and personal relevance. Relevance becomes a by-product of educational success, not a series of instructional strategies designed by well-intentioned educators.

The writer of this article, Mark Pennington, is an educational author of teaching resources to differentiate instruction in the fields of reading and English-language arts. His comprehensive curricula: Teaching Grammar and MechanicsTeaching Essay StrategiesTeaching Reading Strategies, and Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary help teachers differentiate instruction with little additional teacher prep and/or specialized training.

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Response to Intervention: What Just Won’t Work

Having served as a reading specialist at elementary, middle, and high school levels (and even part-timed at the community college level), I have taught numerous reading and writing intervention courses and trained teachers in doing so. With the newly released Response to Intervention (RtI) document and with states and districts scrambling to conform to Race to the Top carrots and sticks, voices of real-world teaching experience need to begin shouting quickly and boldly to be heard. Although I commend the International Reading Association (IRA) for assigning reading assessment a prominent role in their Response to Intervention (RtI) document ©2010 International Reading Association, the language of the document betrays certain pedagogical presuppositions and is, at points, flat unrealistic. For reference, the document is found at http://www.reading.org/Libraries/Resources/RTI_brochure_web.sflb.ashx. Let’s take a look at one section of this document to see if my analyses ring true.

On page two, the IRA Commission lists these guiding principles under the subheading of “Assessment”:

“Assessments, tools, and techniques should provide useful and timely information about desired language and literacy goals. They should reflect authentic language and literacy activities as opposed to contrived texts or tasks generated specifically for assessment purposes. The quality of assessment information should not be sacrificed for the efficiency of an assessment procedure.”

Clearly, the commission has in mind the content, form, and delivery of diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments, particularly reading assessments.

Presupposition #1 Authentic Text is Better than Contrived Text for Assessment Purposes

Since when did reading assessments have to use authentic language? As a writer of numerous reading and writing assessments, contrived text is often essential to produce an effective assessment. In fact, it is nigh on to impossible to create assessments with internal validity that don’t use contrived text. Good assessments isolate variables to ensure that we really do test what we are supposed to be testing.

One example should suffice to demonstrate how unworkable and unreliable authentic language can be when used for reading assessments. At random, I opened up to the middle (pp. 679-680) of one of my favorite novels: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (free ebooks at www.planetebook.com). I skimmed to find the beginning of a start-to-finish passage of typical length for a one-minute fluency assessment and copied such below.  Feel free to time your reading out loud, keeping track of word attack accuracy, unknown vocabulary, and comprehension as you read.

‘Glory be to God in Heaven,

(6) Glory be to God in me…

(12) ‘That verse came from my heart once, it’s not a verse, but

(24) a tear…. I made it myself… not while I was pulling the captain’s

(37) beard, though..’

(39) ‘Why do you bring him in all of a sudden?’

(49) ‘Why do I bring him in? Foolery! All things come to an

(61) end; all things are made equal. That’s the long and short of

(73) it.’

(74) ‘You know, I keep thinking of your pistols.’

(82) ‘That’s all foolery, too! Drink, and don’t be fanciful. I love

(93) life. I’ve loved life too much, shamefully much. Enough!

(102) Let’s drink to life, dear boy, I propose the toast. Why am

(114) I pleased with myself? I’m a scoundrel, but I’m satisfied

(124) with myself. And yet I’m tortured by the thought that I’m a

(136) scoundrel, but satisfied with myself. I bless the creation. I’m

(146) ready to bless God and His creation directly, but… I must

(157) kill one noxious insect for fear it should crawl and spoil life

(169) for others…. Let us drink to life, dear brother. What can be

(181) more precious than life? Nothing! To life, and to one queen

(192) of queens!’

(194) ‘Let’s drink to life and to your queen, too, if you like.’

(206) They drank a glass each. Although Mitya was excited

(215) and expansive, yet he was melancholy, too. It was as though

(226) some heavy, overwhelming anxiety were weighing upon

(233) him.

(234) ‘Misha… here’s your Misha come! Misha, come here, my

(243) boy, drink this glass to Phoebus the golden-haired, of tomorrow

(254) morn..’

(255) ‘What are you giving it him for?’ cried Pyotr Ilyitch, irritably.

(266) ‘Yes, yes, yes, let me! I want to!’

(274) ‘E — ech!’

(275) Misha emptied the glass, bowed, and ran out.

(283)

Words Read in One Minute ____ – Miscues = ____ Net Fluency Score

How did you do? Difficult passage? Not so, according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability scores: Reading Level 1.1  Reading Ease 94.6. Average Word Length 4.0.

As illustrated above, using authentic language is far from an accurate means of assessing one’s fluency. Would you use this 1.1 grade level passage as a diagnostic assessment and follow with a Dr. Seuss 1.1 grade level passage to formatively assess progress two months later? Of course not. Most real-text reading passages of a length suitable for fluency assessments have similar variables as in the Dostoyevsky passage above: They are necessarily out of context and they include unfamiliar language, including names, idiomatic expressions, vocabulary, and culturally-based word choice.

Authentic text does not meet the standards of reliability we need to measure baseline ability or growth. The results cannot be generalized in any meaningful way. Even using the same source for subsequent fluency assessments provides no guaranteed compatibility. Most importantly, authentic language does not give the reading diagnostician the information needed to differentiate instruction. We need to isolate variables with contrived text to insure that we are using accurate reading assessments to inform our instruction. And this is true with all forms of reading assessments, including reading comprehension and phonics (mysteriously not even mentioned in the RtI document) diagnostic instruments. How could a comprehension test effectively measure how much a third-grader understands without using a controlled vocabulary? How could a phonics test measure a sixth-grader’s ability to decode without using nonsense words to isolate the variable of sight word knowledge?

Presupposition #2 Quality Assessments Must be Inefficient

On page two, the IRA Commission lists these guiding principles under the subheading of “Assessment”:

“Assessments, tools, and techniques should provide useful and timely information about desired language and literacy goals. They should reflect authentic language and literacy activities as opposed to contrived texts or tasks generated specifically for assessment purposes. The quality of assessment information should not be sacrificed for the efficiency of an assessment procedure.”

Now, the commission does not say that quality assessments must be inefficient, but by their own criteria they effectively preclude efficient assessment design, form, and delivery. See their referenced document: Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing developed jointly by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English (2010) a a case in point.

It would seem that the IRA Commission wants to have its cake and eat it, too. The commission equates assessment quality with authentic language testing. Authentic language testing involves long in-context reading passages, whole-to-part (e.g. miscue analyses), no nonsense words, multiple measures, etc. and necessitates individual administration. Ever done a complete Individual Reading Inventory?  Pretty time-consuming—hours for an individual student. Individualized assessments require significant training to both correctly administer and accurately interpret results. Inefficient and flat unrealistic. Job protection for reading specialists, special education teachers, and reading coaches?

Although using inclusive language to encourage teachers to be responsible for diagnostic assessments and progress monitoring, the real-world application of the above RtI principles would be to maintain the status quo:

1. Reading specialists, special education teachers, and reading coaches as the “keeper of the keys” and 2. Intervention instruction based upon canned-all-students-start-on-page-one programs, rather than upon diagnostic assessments that will enable teachers to differentiate instruction.

In the real world, there is not enough time to assess students, according to the IRA principles. Teachers do not have the requisite training to assess, interpret data, and accurately inform their instructional decision-making, using the inefficient authentic language assessments. In fact, many of the teachers assigned to reading intervention classes are not the most experienced teachers.

My suggestions? Let’s leave our presuppositions behind and live in the real world. Let’s get off our high horses and train teachers to use simple whole-class, multiple-choice diagnostic reading assessments, so that they can effectively differentiate reading instruction for their intervention students. Sacrifice authentic language? Have a negligible impact on accuracy (debatable) by assessing whole-class? Oh, well… well worth the sacrifices, if teachers will be able to use assessments to inform and differentiate instruction for their intervention students.

Here are some free diagnostic assessments, created by a team of reading specialists, that are user-friendly, simple to score and analyze, and designed to enable teachers of all levels of expertise to differentiate reading instruction: http://penningtonpublishing.com/assessments.php. Now, that’s RtI that does work.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight to adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, adaptable to various instructional settings, and simple to use. With multiple choice reading assessments on two CDs, formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages on eight CDs, 390 flashcards, posters, activities, and games (364 pages), even novice reading teachers and para-professionals will be able to use these user-friendly resources to effectively differentiate reading instruction with minimal preparation.

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