One-on-one assessment can seem like a really important thing to protect, in the primary grades. I am in that camp myself. But I don’t think all forms of assessment need to be one on one. In fact, I think if we can take some pieces of assessment off the one-on-one load, we free teachers up for more of exactly what we wanted to protect in the first place: high quality, responsive, teacher-student interactions in authentic environments.
I’m going to talk about oral reading fluency assessment here, I promise. But first, a little parallel to football movies.
When is a movie coach like a primary grades teacher?
Remember Friday Night Lights (the TV series, of course)? It was the high school football drama even a football hater could love. Kyle Chandler helped.
On the TV show, we saw the coach interacting meaningfully with the kids. A lot. He was tuned in, engaged with their actual persons. The show focused on those meaningful conversations. Come to think of it, all coaching movies point to the same truth: a good coach tunes all the way in and doesn’t miss it or ignore it when someone is hitting a personal barrier.
There are also those parts in football movies when a coach stands there with a clipboard and a stopwatch as the players run the forty. Luckily, we don’t have to watch the whole dang team, one by one – that wouldn’t leave us time for all those meaningful moments that add up to Oscar glory. (Admittedly a rarity—no hashtag yet for #OscarsSoFootball.)
What makes a great football movie is when the film editing protects those high quality, responsive, coach-player interactions in authentic environments.
So here’s the thing about current day oral reading fluency assessment: typically, it’s a lot more like the clipboard and stopwatch scenes and less like those meaningful moments. But since we can’t edit down to a brief montage, those oral reading clipboard scenes do not end up being quick and efficient.
How much time does fluency assessment today take?
In many schools, all students in kindergarten through third grade are given a set of one-minute oral reading fluency assessments, administered one on one and then scored by the teacher for words correct per minute (WCPM). An efficient teacher might do her whole class in three days of reading block time… then do that again in winter and in spring. It’s easy to see how several days of good, interactive literacy support can be lost to assessment.
In some schools, the classroom teacher is off the hook. Instead, an interventionist—from Title 1 or special education, often – collects fluency data on all kids. That can mean weeks of literacy intervention for our most at-risk students, lost.
Finally, in some schools the WCPM approach has been supplanted with richer, informal one-to-one literacy assessments. These tools typically include oral reading accuracy and rate, comprehension checks, and adapting text level based on a student’s performance. For most of these tools, half an hour per child is typical. Half an hour per child easily means 15 hours for a whole class—perhaps three weeks of literacy instruction, re-designed to accommodate assessment needs.
What do we trade for good data?
Half an hour per child strikes some as worth it because it affords the teacher rich, instructionally useful, student-specific data. But there are some downsides. The cost is 15 hours when a teacher cannot move about the classroom, monitoring for what happens when kids write or explore books on their own—or for why they don’t. Those hours are time stolen from differentiated small group instruction, from pumping up opportunities to respond, and from conversations that extend language and vocabulary development.
Fifteen hours is also enough to affect the very design and climate of reading block time: the teacher has to set up procedures that ensure kids will not try to interact with her while she is assessing a student. That can be tough to reconcile with a classroom climate based on good formative assessment practice, where kids are encouraged to voice their confusion or check their understanding.
Can use of technology help us protect high-quality, interactive instruction?
Noting that fluency assessment had been largely unchanged for 25 years, NWEA recently tackled the problem of next generation fluency assessment. The challenge was to vastly improve efficiency while insisting on instructionally useful data. By putting the now-omnipresent technology of speech processing under the hood (think Siri or Alexa), we developed an approach that can be administered to a whole class of students in under half an hour, with automatically scored results. (Check out here and here for details.)
Good K-3 teachers know incredible ways to use time with kids in literacy instruction, if we can give it back from assessment. It’s just like Friday Night Lights. If we can help edit down those clipboard and stopwatch scenes, we are going to see more scenes where the fully present, interactive connection between teachers and students moves us to tears—and moves all kids to success and growth in literacy.