Assessing learning in reading
How effective are the policies and activities in place to assess student achievement in reading?
Assessment information assists teachers to develop a good knowledge of their students and to set the next steps for their learning. It is a prerequisite for well‑targeted and timely interventions to assist individual and groups of students, for teacher reflection on the effectiveness of their teaching strategies, and for school self review. Assessment is a dynamic process that involves gathering, analysing and using relevant and valid information about the learner.
The effective, gathering and use of assessment data has a strong influence on students’ achievement. Used appropriately, it can also have a positive impact on students’ motivation and self-esteem.
To be effective assessment processes or mechanisms need to be valid and reliable measures. Valid assessment processes are those that measure what they are intended to measure. Reliable assessment processes result in consistent conclusions being reached by teachers about a student’s performance.
Drawing together assessment information from across a range of sources of evidence (including, for example, self, peer, activity-based, oral and written assessments) assures teachers that they are actually assessing what is intended. Fairness to students is another important reason for teachers to use a wide range of assessment processes to measure student performance in reading. This contributes to an assessment process that allows for all students to demonstrate their achievements.
The quality of the assessment data gathered by teachers was evaluated, along with teachers use of feedback and feedforward  information, opportunities for students to assess their own achievements, communication with parents and the use of assessment information for programme review. This, along with any other relevant information, was used to make an overall judgement on how effectively appropriate and regular assessment of student achievement was used to improve learning. These results are shown in Figure 4.
Most teachers were gathering comprehensive achievement information on their students’ progress in reading and using this information to improve learning and teaching in reading. A third of teachers (38 percent) were highly effective in their use of assessment information and a further 46 percent were effective. Thirteen percent were not always effective and three percent were not effective.
Figure 4. Effectiveness of the assessment of student achievement
Year 4 and Year 8 teachers
Teachers were evaluated on how effectively they used information from the appropriate and regular assessment of student achievement to improve learning. The performance of Year 4 teachers was compared with that of the Year 8 teachers. The difference between the groups was not statistically significant.
Teachers used a number of different assessment tools. The most commonly used tools were running records. Running records provided a diagnostic framework for teachers to systematically observe and analyse a student’s reading behaviours. In some cases, teachers used the running records procedures for determining the strategies used by the student to decode the text. In other cases, the teacher asked some comprehension questions to check student understanding of the text. Different resources were used by teachers for taking running records. The most common resource used at the Year 4 level was the PM Benchmarks series and at the Year 8 level, the PROBE series.
Other commonly used assessment tools in reading were the Progressive Achievement Tests (PAT: Reading: Comprehension and Vocabulary), the Burt Word Reading Test, and Supplementary Tests of Assessment in Reading (STAR). Some teachers were collecting information on reading using asTTle (Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning).
Teachers frequently gathered assessment information on reading through their observations and the assessment tasks that they had designed themselves. Some teachers believed that their training in reading recovery had assisted them in gathering detailed information on students’ strategies and learning needs in reading.
Teachers used other assessment tools less frequently. These included the Assessment Resource Bank tasks (ARBs) and tasks published from the National Educational Monitoring Project (NEMP).
Quality of assessment information
The quality of assessment information gathered by teachers was evaluated to ascertain the extent to which it was valid and reliable for the purpose for which it was used, and the processes were fair in that they enabled all students to demonstrate their achievement.
Many teachers were gathering comprehensive and detailed information on their students’ progress in reading. In most cases, the teachers had gathered and analysed information on the reading strategies and knowledge of their students. The information was used to diagnose learning difficulties in reading and to plan the next learning steps for the student.
Some teachers, particularly those of Year 8 students, had limited information on student achievement in reading. Their information was restricted to a recorded reading level of achievement for class members with little detail available on how the information was interpreted or used. Sometimes the records held were out of date and reading assessments were being undertaken too infrequently to give accurate information on students’ progress.
Teachers reported that the assessment of individual students in order to gather detailed, diagnostic information of reading practices was very time consuming. Where good practice was observed, the teachers had implemented well-organised and efficiently managed reading programmes. The classroom routines for reading were understood and followed by the students. This enabled the teacher to carry out individual assessments as part of the regular literacy activities.
Feedback and feedforward information
It is important that teachers provide regular, specific and constructive feedback and feedforward on students’ work that contributes to the next stage of learning. These processes are key elements of formative assessment. Formative assessment, often referred to as assessment for learning, refers to all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by the students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities.
Just under half of the teachers (44 percent) were providing students with timely, specific and constructive feedback and feedforward on students’ performance that contributed to the next stage of learning. These classrooms were responsive learning environments where the teachers discussed next learning steps with students in a supportive manner. These teachers were sharing the learning outcomes and success criteria with the students, often discussing and setting personal learning goals. As a result, students gained useful insights into their own learning processes and the learning outcomes sought.
Teachers had implemented different procedures for providing this feedback and feedforward information. While most interactions occurred in discussion with individual students, some teachers facilitated small group conferences and teaching clinics. Some students were given detailed written feedback and feedforward information on their reading research projects. Other feedback and feedforward information was recorded in students’ workbooks, in teachers’ planning books or on reading organisational charts.
In many schools teachers had incorporated the setting and sharing of learning intentions in reading with students into their regular classroom routines. In the most effective classrooms, teachers and learners worked together to identify the learning goals and set criteria for success. The learning goals were specific to groups of students and relevant to the learning needs of students in reading.
Other teachers (56 percent) were providing little feedback or feedforward information to their students about their learning and achievement in reading. These teachers were generally positive and affirming in talking to students during the reading programme, but the teacher-student interactions rarely related to the learning focus. Discussions with students tended to focus on task completion, the management of routines or student behaviour. Students were not given feedforward information that informed them of possible next learning steps.
These teachers were also less effective in sharing appropriate and suitable learning goals with students. In some cases, although the teachers involved students in the process of explicitly setting learning goals, this was happening infrequently. When goals were set for the term or for the year, they were often not useful in guiding the students’ day-to-day learning. In other cases, learning intentions were not clearly linked to the activities being completed by the students. Some teachers had identified that this was an area for professional development and were working with advisors on the Assess to Learn programme for this.
Student self and peer assessment
Self and peer assessment are mechanisms for promoting student thoughtfulness and self-regulation and have been shown to have a high impact on student achievement, as has the resulting work-related talk and discussion. About a third (34 percent) of the teachers were effectively engaging their students in self and peer assessment. Students were informed of the learning objectives of the reading activities and the criteria for success. They were able to apply these to their own work and the achievement of their peers in reading. Successful self and peer assessment requires that students are specifically taught the strategies and language to engage in purposeful discussions on success and progress in reading. A few teachers discussed the findings of the self and peer assessment with the students and used the information to support further teaching.
Students in these classes were generally very aware of their progress in reading. They were informed of the running record results and what these results meant. They were able to discuss the reading strategies they used knowledgeably and what their strengths and weaknesses were in reading.
Other teachers (66 percent) were not providing students with opportunities for effective self and peer assessment. These programmes were often very teacher‑directed with the students having few opportunities to evaluate or regulate their own learning. Some teachers had implemented some basic strategies for self‑evaluation, such as recording perceptions of achievement on a “smiley-face” Likert-type scale, but students were not able to identify their next learning steps from this process. In other cases, students were keeping reading logs – a record of the books that they had read. While this practice gives students an indication of the number and variety of books they have read, it is insufficient in itself in equipping students to monitor their progress in reading.
Communication with parents
Most teachers (65 percent) were providing parents with comprehensive information on the reading programme and their child’s progress and achievement in reading. The majority of schools were using twice-yearly written reports as the main way of communicating achievement information with parents. Where the most effective practice was observed parents were provided with regular reports that identified both the level at which their child was working and the expected level of achievement for their age. Parents were well-informed about their child’s strengths in reading and areas for development through the information from the teacher’s diagnostic and formative assessment processes. Comments recorded on the report form were specific and constructive. In some schools, as part of the overall literacy enhancement strategy, letters were sent to parents twice a year (in addition to the overall progress reports) giving further information on literacy achievement.
In many schools, parent-teacher interviews provided parents with opportunities to discuss any concerns arising from written reports. The interviews are opportunities for parents and teachers to discuss students’ progress in reading and to share information on any special abilities or learning needs. Some teachers said that they used these opportunities to discuss the students’ reading goals with parents and, where appropriate, the teacher, parent and student discussed future directions for reading together.
Most schools also say they operate an “open-door policy” and parents can visit the classroom at any time to discuss their child’s progress in reading with the teacher. In some classes, parents are regularly attending the class as parent helpers to assist with the reading programme, which also gives frequent opportunities for them to discuss their child’s progress with the teacher. However these initiatives do not provide all parents with equal opportunities for involvement. Some parents are not comfortable with visiting the school and discussing their child’s progress with the teacher, and others are not able to regularly assist as parent helpers. Teachers need to ensure that they provide opportunities for all parents to be involved and informed about their child’s learning in reading.
Using achievement information for programme review
Valid and reliable student achievement information can be used in schools for accountability purposes, that is, to inform curriculum review and decisions about policy and resources and teacher professional development.
Some schools (43 percent) were systematically collating information on student achievement in reading in order to inform curriculum review and as a basis for resourcing decisions. In many cases, school-wide achievement data was gathered and analysed by teachers as they reflected on the effectiveness of the reading programme. Teachers discussed the information at syndicate and staff meetings. The principal also presented school data to the board of trustees to monitor achievement in reading. Schools that had appointed a literacy leader (generally after involvement with the Literacy Enhancement Project), reported a greater focus on gathering and analysing achievement data to inform programme review.
The remaining schools (57 percent) were less effective in their use of achievement data to inform programme review. In many of these cases, teachers reflected on aspects of the programme that were working well or not so well and discussed classroom and syndicate requirements. However, most of these discussions were based on teacher perception rather than on evidence about student achievement in reading.