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Assessment: On Track for Reading Success

How can teachers make sure that each student is not only being taught, but is actually learning? In this webcast, Roland Good, Mary Ruth Coleman, and Michael C. McKenna talk about how assessment can be used to lead students to reading success.

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Program description

We’ve all heard the line, “I taught them, but they didn’t learn.” How can teachers make sure that each student is not only being taught, but is actually learning? Dr. Roland Good of the University of Oregon and Dr. Mary Ruth Coleman, President of the Council for Exceptional Children, and Dr. Michael C. McKenna of the University of Virginia will address how assessment can be used to lead students to reading success.


Dr. Roland Good is an associate professor in the School Psychology Program of the University of Oregon. He’s served on the review boards of several professional publications, has published numerous educational articles, and he travels the country teaching and speaking about DIBELS.

Dr. Mary Ruth Coleman is a senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a research associate professor in the School of Education. She’s President of the Council for Exceptional Children. She brings to all of her roles years of teaching experience and numerous publication credits.

Dr. Michael C. McKenna is Thomas G. Jewell Professor of Reading at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. He is author of numerous books and articles and has a particular interest in reading assessment.


Delia Pompa iis the Vice President of the Center for Community Educational Excellence, at the National Council of La Raza.

Watch the webcast

Discussion questions

  1. How have you used assessments to better understand what to teach your students? What enabled that assessment-to-instruction link?
  2. Poll other teachers and specialists in your school. What assessment instruments are used for screening? Diagnostic purposes? Progress monitoring purposes? Outcome measures? Share how each assessment contributes to your knowledge base about your students.
  3. Share your experiences testing students in timed versus untimed situations. What types of information can be gathered under each condition? How can teachers use this information to plan instruction?
  4. What are some obstacles to using regular progress monitoring techniques in the classroom? What steps can you take to make this more feasible? What could your school system do differently that would make this task easier for teachers?
  5. Is your school equipped to work with students who are not proficient in English? What are some ways you could improve your assessment system for English language learners?


Video Introduction

Delia Pompa: How can good assessments help make our children better readers? What does the latest research tell us? I’m Delia Pompa. Please join me for our next Reading Rockets webcast, Assessment: On Track for Reading Success.

Announcer: Funding for the Reading Rockets webcast series is provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.


Delia Pompa: Hello. I’m Delia Pompa. Welcome to the Reading Rockets webcast series. Today we’re going to talk with three top reading experts about using assessment to improve our students reading skills.

Joining me we have Dr. Mary Ruth Coleman. She’s senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Coleman is also president of the Council for Exceptional Children.

Dr. Roland Good is associate professor in the School Psychology Program of the University of Oregon and he’s the co-author of Dibels a widely used literacy assessment for K-6 students.

And we have Dr. Michael McKenna. Dr. McKenna is a professor of reading education at the University of Virginia and co-author of the book, Assessment for Reading Instruction. I’d also like to welcome our studio audience of educators and parents who’ll have some questions for our guests near the end of the show.

Thank you all for joining us. Dr. McKenna, I think lots of educators may look at assessment as something that takes a lot of time and maybe more trouble then it’s worth. Why is assessment so important when it comes to teaching reading?

Dr. Michael McKenna: I think there are several reasons for that. One is that reading is a very complex activity. It has many components and unless a teacher is adequately monitoring a child’s progress as those components are developed, then problems can occur that the teacher may be ill-prepared to address.

Delia Pompa: Well why can’t a teacher learn what she needs to know in her day-to-day interactions with children?

Dr. McKenna: Well I think through those interactions and through the observation that accompanies them, that a teacher can get plenty of very useful information. I certainly don’t want to exclude observation and it is really a very important arm of assessment. However, I think it’s a mistake to look at that as only the beginning and end of assessment.

I see it more as a means of supplementing other assessments, rather then substituting for them. It’s just too complicated and too unsystematic to rely exclusively on that.

Delia Pompa: What kinds of broad assessments should teachers be using in their classroom? Describe what happens over the course of a year.

Dr. McKenna: Well typically we’re moving into what I think is a long overdue period of history where teachers are beginning to use screening assessments to identify problems across a range of components of the program and then they are using that to identify kids with problems in particular areas.

Then they follow up with specific diagnostic instruments that could be informal in nature, that gives them the specific information they need to plan instruction for tomorrow. And then they do progress monitoring to see if the fruits of their labors are coming to pass. And ultimately there are outcome measures towards the end of the year so that we can accumulate information across classrooms and schools.

Delia Pompa: There’s a whole set of things that goes on, isn’t there?

Dr. McKenna: Yes.

Delia Pompa: What role does a student’s motivation play in the validity of assessment? Should we be trying to assess motivation too? You talked about all those other things we’re assessing.

Dr. McKenna: Well that’s an area close to my heart. I think that the notion that the motivation and attitudinal factors are simply unimportant, is wrong for a host of reasons. For one thing, I think that doing some assessments along these lines which are not time consuming, can, number one, create a higher level of awareness in teachers that this is really an important factor.

It is also acknowledging the important role that a teacher can play — I like the metaphor of a broker, a teacher is between books over here and kids over here. And if a teacher can identify particular areas of interest and topics, then he or she can recommend certain books or bring them into instruction in small groups or whole classes, that are likely to well-align with pre-existing interests and therefore stand a chance of overcoming the reluctance that we see gradually accumulating on the part of readers who are frustrated.

Delia Pompa: How can teachers fit all this in? It just seems like a lot of work?

Dr. McKenna: Well I don’t think it is. I think that there is a prevailing myth that assessment is something that is extremely complicated and is in the proper province of special educators who are conducting staffings or reading specialists or clinicians and so forth.

But we can get the information we need to serve most classroom purposes very quickly, just a matter of changing your mindset and having a useable toolkit of things that you can pull to get information about kids on a systematic basis.

Delia Pompa: You know I know a lot of educators often don’t have a choice of what assessments they use, but for those who do, how do you recognize a good assessment tool? What makes a good assessment?

Dr. McKenna: Well, it needs primarily to go beyond the mere identification of an area of need and get fine grained, so that the specifics of where to go next with a particular child are evident through the result. And these can be very informal measures that are easy to give, quick to give and that can lead to a systematic monitoring on the part of the teacher, where this kid is and whether the effort the teacher’s making in small groups or individually, are having the results that he or she would expect them to have.

Delia Pompa: It sounds like teachers have to have assessment on the mind the whole time they’re teaching.

Dr. McKenna: I think we would all three agree that that’s definitely the kind of mindset we’re trying to create.

Delia Pompa: Dr. Good, what are the pros and cons of using timed assessments with the young kids? We see some children who are excited about the possibility of beating the clock and others who are intimidated by the ticking that goes on.

Dr. Roland Good: I think it’s the job of the tester to make the timing part be not an important factor in the assessment. It’s not a race. We’re not trying to beat the clock, we’re trying to do our best reading. So the tester should be de-emphasizing the timed part of it.

The timing is important because we want our assessment to be efficient. Every minute that we spent assessing is a minute that we’re not teaching. So by using a timed assessment we’re able to in a very short period of time get high quality information. In looking at the timing, we’re also looking at the students’ level of confidence with the skill.

They may know the skill but they may not be confident with their knowledge and they may struggle their way through the skill and that’s not mastery enough of the skill, that’s really a sign that they’re beginning to learn it but that they need additional practice. All of the skills we’re developing are skills that are a stepping stone to a higher level skill.

If they’re just barely able to do that skill but they’re not confident with it, they’re not prepared for the next step or the next level. So we want them not only to master the skill but to be fluent and automatic with that skill so they can build additional skills on top of that one.

Delia Pompa: Dr. Coleman, how helpful are the standard assessment tools when it comes to children who have learning disabilities or other special needs? What’s the best way to get a fair picture of where those students stand?

Dr. Mary Ruth Coleman: Well it’s interesting that we started with the idea of time and we think about assessments from a timed perspective because when we think about children with learning disabilities or children that have other kinds of issues going on, we have to make sure that we’re clear about time and power.

And are we looking at truly what the child knows and if we’re trying to assess what the child knows, then we probably want to reduce even further the emphasis on time or how quickly they can do it. But when we are looking at fluency issues or we’re looking at other kinds of issues, then time comes back into the picture.

So for students with disabilities, our first job is to minimize the impact of the area of disability on our assessments, to make sure that the abilities can shine through. And then we need to be very, very clear what is the purpose of the assessment. Are we looking at fluency issues?

Are we looking at issues that timing and specific precision in response are critical or can we allow for a draft process? Can we allow a student — if we want to know if a student can write well, for example, then we want to mirror the writing process. If we want to know if a student can understand written language, then we want to give them systematic ways to read and read with understanding.

Fluency’s important. We need to know can they do this in a timed approach. Can they approach reading for content area? Because we want minimize the impact the area of disability, we want to make sure for example if we’re looking at comprehension, is it important that we have comprehension just while reading, or do we also want to compare that to listening comprehension?

And if we find that a youngster has excellent listening comprehension but when they have to read on their own they can’t read with their eyes and get that information, then we go back to why, what is the problem? The problem is not thinking and understanding about the information, the problem is getting the information when I am reading on my own.

That can be fluency, that can be word recognition, that can be phonemic awareness, visual — a whole variety of things. So targeted error analysis, what is the issue for this youngster is very important. That’s a combination of using the kinds of assessments that we use to look at specific kinds of areas and then, as you said, systematically looking at where those strengths are and how we can pull that together to provide the support necessary for learning.

Delia Pompa: It’s very clear from all of you it’s not just about giving a test, it’s knowing what you’re looking for and how to do it. Thanks everyone. Now we’re going to take a look at Metzger Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. We’ll begin in one of Ms. Pulver’s first grade reading groups.


Announcer: At Metzger the first job is to divide the kids into flexible groups based on their reading level. That way they’re challenged and also achieve some success everyday. Ms. Pulver’s students are working to catch up with their first grade peers.

Ms. Pulver: Eliza, what does fond mean?

Student: It means you really like something a lot.

Ms. Pulver: You really like alot.

Announcer: For kids who struggle even in Ms. Pulver’s group, teacher assistant Marilyn Peterson uses a much more basic curriculum with more opportunities to practice basic skills.

Student: Kite, hope, hop.

Ms. Pulver: Start all over.

Student: Kite, hop, hope, kit.

Ms. Pulver: Perfect. Alright.

Announcer: For kids who are behind like JT Richardson, Metzger throws in an extra dose of reading with one-on-one tutoring while the rest of the class works on science or social studies. JT gets to review the lesson for the day. This book is at a good level for JT, so the more he practices, the more comfortable he gets. Being able to read fluidly and automatically is critical to comprehension.

Ms. Pulver: Ready, set, go.

JT: Deena said let’s bake cupcakes. Jack said I hate to bake. Have you ever baked cupcakes, Jack asked Frank. Granddad can you help us. We bake…

Ms. Pulver: Wow! Oh my gosh! And you got in the word bake right at the time. Wow!

Ms. Pulver: Fifteen more words, high five, on the side, down low, way to go, JT.

Announcer: JT charts his progress everyday but while they continue to give him positive feedback, his teachers are concerned.

Ms. Pulver: He’s a concern because there’s a marginal growth but it’s just totally not consistent.

Announcer: Every three months Metzger’s school district comes in to do its own assessment of each child. That’s in addition to the weekly or bi-weekly assessments that the school does.

Pam Zinn: Built.

JT: Built.

Pam Zinn: JT is a student that I would be concerned about. It’s the end of first grade, he still needs to sound all of his words out. He has a few words memorized, the basic sight words, but he still has a ways to go there.

Pam Zinn: We are finished. Thank you very much.

Announcer: Dr. Roland Good of the University of Oregon worked to develop the assessment that Metzger uses.

Dr. Good: His progress is telling us that we have not yet found the level of support that he needs and the child is always right. The child is telling you I’m not getting enough support. They’re right and then we need to find a way to provide more support to him. The truth is we have the knowledge, we have the skills, we have the intervention to teach these skills to an extremely broad range of children.

And we should not accept a reason why we are not teaching them. We should make sure that we teach them.


Delia Pompa: You’re very convincing Dr. Good. What do you mean when you say the child is always right?

Dr. Good: Well the teachers at Metzger are really starting with the belief that, the conviction, the position that we need to teach all of our children to read, all of our children each one, to read at an adequate level of proficiency, anything less than that has too dire of consequences for that child and for their life.

And so they’re looking at the progress of that child week by week and they’re saying is their progress adequate to reach these important literacy goals? And when the child’s progress is not adequate, that’s saying to us we need to provide more support. If we want all children to reach the same goals, we have to provide more support to some children than we do to others.

We have to make that decision and the child’s progress is what tells us how much support do we need to provide. When their progress is less then adequate, they’re telling us we need to do more. It’s our job to figure out what that more would be, what kind of support it would be.

Is that extra time, is that extra practice, is that a modified curriculum that’s going to target essential skills? We have to solve that and figure out what it would take to get the child to where they need to get to.

Delia Pompa: Well what are some of the reasons schools give for not teaching some kids to read and does good assessment help?

Dr. Good: Oh, good assessment is essential. You know, I think probably one of the biggest misconceptions about why some children are not making adequate progress is a belief that time is the answer. That if we wait for them to mature adequately, they will become ready and they will be readers.

The evidence shows that that probably won’t work, the odds are very against that approach. We need to, when a child is not making adequate progress, do something about it. It’s our instruction that will change the trajectory and the pathway for that child.

Delia Pompa: I think a lot of teachers find the concept of assessment driven instruction challenging to deal with in the classroom. Can you give us an example of what it would look like?

Dr. Good: Well in order for this to be workable for teachers in a classroom, it must be efficient and it must be purposeful. By efficient, I mean, we should get the maximum amount of information in the smallest amount of time because every minute we spend testing is a minute that we’re not teaching.

And our primary purpose is to teach. If we find ourselves spending all of our time testing — and I’ve been in schools where the first six weeks of the school year is spent in testing. This is out of control because our primary job is to teach and it must be purposeful. When we’re assessing, we’re assessing for a purpose, to make a decision.

A decision that will change the outcome for the student. So assessment needs to be linked to and tied to a decision-making model. If I’m testing, I’m testing for a reason. That reason will allow me to make a decision about that child, where are they, where do they need to be?

Is their progress adequate? Do I need to provide more support? Do I need to maintain the support that I’m providing? How is our system working? All of those are decisions that we need to inform with assessment. By making those decisions well with reliable and valid measures we can improve outcomes for our children.

Delia Pompa: Well what are some of the challenges a teacher’s going to run into using assessment guided instruction and how can she handle them?

Dr. Good: Well you know I think that there are two biggest challenges that I think teachers encounter. Powerful, valid, reliable, important assessment provides very vivid information to the teacher of which children are on track and which children need more support. One of the very first questions that a teacher will say, after they receive this powerful assessment information is, what should I do about it.

And we need to have interventions that are linked to those important ideas that a teacher can bring to bury right away when they see that a-that a-a-a student is struggling. Probably the second question that comes up is when we’re providing our best intervention and we’re looking at the student’s progress, and if we see that that progress is not at the rate that we want them to be progressing, and the student at Metzger is an example of that, then the question becomes what should we change about what we’re doing.

And this is also a very difficult question for teachers. They know how to teach, they have powerful instruction, but if that’s not working, what do I do differently. And the answer, I think, to both of those is around professional development. And we really have very powerful answers to those questions.

We need to get those answers to teachers, we need to get those resources to teachers. So the professional development and coaching for those teachers are essential resources for implementing data-based instruction.

Delia Pompa: The struggling readers seem to be the biggest challenge for some teachers. Why is it so important to check up on them regularly, these struggling readers, and even weekly sometimes?

Dr. Good: You know, I think there’s two reasons for that. A very first reason is as teachers we don’t do very well in judging a student’s progress. We do very well judging that a student is at risk, but judging progress is much more difficult. If we’re teaching as hard as we can, we tend to think that they’re making adequate progress.

Sometimes they’re not. That assessment is essential to tell us when a student is not making adequate progress to tell us that we need to do something different. The research has shown very persuasively that when we’re monitoring progress in changing what we do when we have to, that we can improve outcomes dramatically.

So one reason to monitor progress frequently is to improve student outcomes. I think there’s a second benefit of that progress monitoring as well. That when we are a teacher or when we’re a student — and students and teachers know when they’re a struggling reader or if I’m a struggling reader.

We know that. And this is very discouraging. And if you can see yourself making progress toward an important goal, it is hugely motivating, it’s hugely invigorating to the teacher as well as to the student, and it can redouble effort, it can get the bought in when other things would be a tendency for them to buy out.

So I really see the motivation as a very important part of this as well.

Delia Pompa: Well, what about our stronger students? What kinds of check ups should we be giving them?

Dr. Good: We absolutely need to check up on our stronger students. Probably not as often but we need to check up on them as well. In part because we as a school are responsible for all of our children. We need to make sure all of our students, our high students, our middle students, our low students, we need to make sure everybody is progressing, everybody is benefiting from our instructions.

So we need to check up and make sure that by focusing on struggling readers we’re not detracting from the progress of our advanced readers. We also need to check up on those advanced readers to make sure that we’re not missing some essential, crucial foundation skill.

Some of these students will pick up on reading quickly. Informally they’ll have their own understanding of it that will look fine in the short term. But they may be missing essential skills that place them at risk when we move into more advanced reading skills, especially when we move into multi-syllabic words or a broader reading vocabulary.

We need other strategies to be able to encounter that. If we’re missing a key foundation, those students become at risk later on even though they look great at the beginning.

Delia Pompa: That sounds like a very complex set of tasks for the teacher. How can technology help make assessments easier?

Dr. Good: Well, there’s two aspects of technology. One aspect of the technology is our knowledge about testing, our knowledge about interventions. And we know how to do this. We have solved the technology issues about how to test and how to intervene.

The other aspect of technology is really, you know, like computers and gizmos and stuff. And we’re doing some remarkable things with computers and with hand-held and palm devices where a teacher can sit there with a palm, call up an individual student. On the palm an assessment probe will be present.

They’ll do the assessment with the student in a matter of minutes and record what the student says on the palm device, synchronize it to a database that can provide reports to the teacher, to the principal, to the superintendent showing the progress of all the students in the school.

Within minutes of that assessment that information is available. The teacher can then pull it up on a webpage and there’s analysis software that will look at the item responses of the student and suggest appropriate targets for instruction and even suggest appropriate interventions that would work for that.

Delia Pompa: Star Trek, here we are.

Dr. Good: That’s exactly it.

Delia Pompa: Dr. McKenna, what are the benefits of so-called high stakes reading tests or tests for reading and what are the dangers?

Dr. McKenna: Well, that’s a loaded question.

Delia Pompa: That’s why you’re answering it.

Dr. McKenna: It’s a tough call but there are legitimate needs of various stakeholders, parents, policymakers, legislatures and so forth, to identify exactly how effective our reading instructional efforts are. And that was really the reason for instituting and requiring these tests in the first place, partly associated with No Child Left Behind but these, of course, have a much longer history than that.

So those are invariably — there have been some experiments otherwise but now they’re invariably group achievement tests that are aggregated across kids and then disaggregated by group to determine adequate yearly progress. And I think that the disadvantage of this is that it becomes the tail that wags the dog.

There’s a danger that teachers and schools naturally are in a very defensive posture about this. They wanna avoid getting on negatives lists of various kinds. And so it’s not unusual for me to walk into a school and find that months in advance they’re taking practice tests and gearing up the formatting and content of the test so they can pass it.

And I’m simply very concerned about the instructional time that’s lost because of that. There’s also the problems that the results of those tests are not very useful for planning instruction, for meeting the needs of individual kids, which is the other arm of assessment that we’re primarily here to discuss.

But most of the national press is on the high stakes test, and they are definitely high stakes. And I see very few chinks in that armor.

Delia Pompa: So there is a balance of benefits and dangers.

Dr. McKenna: Yes.

Delia Pompa: Dr. Coleman, how do parents fit into this whole story of assessment? How should schools involve parents in the assessment process?

Dr. Coleman: Well, right now I think there’s a fairly large disconnect in many places in terms of how parents are involved and how they’re engaged and how we activate the knowledge that parents have about their own child. So I think we can do a lot better in terms of bringing parents into the mix.

Parents know the context of their child, they know the background of their child, they know the child’s interests, they know what the child does at home. This is particularly important when we look at culturally and linguistically diverse children and we look at the ways that schools interface respectfully with children who come from different backgrounds.

Parents have a lot of wisdom about their child and also parents often have gut-level concerns about their child that as a teacher who’s overwhelmed by children we may not pick up on. So it is our responsibility to invite parents to the conversation, to listen to parents, to share with them why we use assessments, what kinds of assessments we do and what we do about the information that we get.

It’s very helpful, for example, to give concrete examples to a parent, to be able to say, “I was listening to Juan read and here are the things he’s doing. In fact, let’s listen together to this tape that we have. And what’s happening now is he’s missing some of the words”.

“But the words that he’s missing he’s filling in with other words. He’s using what we call “cloze” and he’s keeping the flow of what’s going on. So I’m not as worried about his understanding, but I do have some concerns that he’s not decoding or looking at the words phonemically.”

And if we can show parents a concrete example of that and then we can say, “Here’s what I’m going to do about this. Here is how we’re going to help support your child in this classroom”, I think that bodes well because we are a team and we are all focused on the success of the youngster.

And if we can make sure that we function well as a team, the youngster’s gonna be better served.

Delia Pompa: Dr. Good, Dr. Coleman just gave some great examples of how to explain all this to parents but what are some other things teachers can do to explain to parents why certain assessments are given and what the results mean?

Dr. Good: Well, I think the sell to parents is usually very, very, very easy if you can show where their son or daughter is and show where you want them to be and show the pathway they’re gonna have to follow to get to there and do this in concrete ways that really communicate to the parent and tell them what you’re going to do.

The thing that frustrates a parent is if they see a problem or a concern and the school isn’t doing something about it, boy, that’s very difficult for a parent. But if we have a powerful plan about what we’re going to do about it and if we can cue them into that plan and tell them what they can do to help.

And I think it’s really important to give them a role in the child’s progress as well. What things can we practice at home? What things can we explain? What things can we model? How can they help and support our effort to do this is also very powerful.

Delia Pompa: It’s a team effort.

Dr. Coleman: But as part of that team, though, we also, in addition to all of that, we have to be listening and we have to listen to what the concerns, what the needs, what the areas of interest, what is that child doing at home so when we present this information it becomes a conversation.

“This is what I’m seeing? Do you see anything like this at home? What are your concerns? What are your areas that you would like for us to work on and how can we work together?”

Delia Pompa: It’s great advice. Thanks everyone. Now let’s visit Arlington County in Virginia where we’ll see how assessments are used to determine how to teach to a child who’s just learning to speak English.


Announcer: Eight year old Marlon Escobar Lopez has an important appointment today. He’s checking into his new school system in Arlington, Virginia.

Announcer: He’s at the Arlington Intake Center where staff will figure out exactly what he needs from his new teachers.

Sylvia Koch: Intake Center is the place where children who speak another language or have another language background enter school.

Announcer: The Intake Center stays very busy. Arlington’s English language learners speak 104 languages and come from 122 different countries. Most of the children speak Spanish. Those kids are very diverse too, both culturally and economically.

Dr. Margarita Calderón: Children from middle class have had certain experiences that other students may not have had. They’ve been to museums, they have been read to in their own language.

Announcer: Marlon is from Honduras. He looks like he’s ready for school but will the school be ready for him. The process starts with his dad.

Sylvia Koch: Parents are just that part of the learning equation that we cannot do without. You know, it’s the child, the parent, the teacher; they’re the three most basic components.

Announcer: The interview gives Arlington some important information about Marlon like the fact that he’s been to school in the United States for a year already.

Sylvia Koch: We look not only at the academic background but we also look at all-the whole child. We look at his health situation, we look at family history.

Announcer: When his Dad’s finished with his questions, it’s Marlon’s turn. His teachers need to know how well Marlon can understand spoken and written English.

Evaluator: Put the girl behind the man.

Dr. Claude Goldenberg: So if you’re assessing the child, you not only wanna assess their knowledge of letters and sounds and so forth in English, but you wanna tap into it in Spanish too.

Marlon: Gatitos, los gatos son animals.

Dr. Claude Goldenberg: Because whatever they know in Spanish you can be quite certain you can use to help them acquire the skills in English.

Marlon: … put strawberries and carrots in …

Announcer: Marlon can read a little bit in English already and his comprehension skills in both languages is strong. So the Intake Center places him in a second grade class for English language learners.

Evaluator: Short sound of “i,” everybody. Try “i, i, i”. Okay? How about …

Announcer: His teachers at Abington Elementary have received all the information gathered at the Intake center, both social and academic, so they know exactly where to start with Marlon.

Sylvia Koch: Using time for instruction right away at the correct and appropriate level is important to us. We want all our students to achieve at a high level, to be challenged regardless of where they started.

Marlon: Indigo.

Evaluator: Indigo. Excellent.


Delia Pompa: Dr. Coleman, Arlington made it look pretty easy but I’m imagining that they’re somewhat unique. What special challenges do English language learners present when it comes to reading assessment?

Dr. Coleman: One of the greatest challenge is, of course, they give the example of Spanish, but we have systems where there’s hundreds of languages spoken. And so when we want to do a fair assessment of their basic language skills for an individual, we really do have to know what are their language skills in their primary language.

What kind of a background do they have in their primary language for elaborative language? Do they have a rich language base? Do they have any awareness of reading in their primary language? Do they have print awareness? Are there books in the home? Are the family engaged in discussing books, not just in reading them?

So what is the language platform that this child is moving from? And in some ways, that language platform, it’s more important that that language platform is strong, is rich, is multifaceted than what language it is. If the language platform is not strong and is not rich, then the experiences we’re building on will be more limited.

And when we transition that child into English language and learning our language as English and speaking and reading and writing, if we don’t have a very strong platform in their own language, it’s more difficult to transfer them in.

One of the points that they made was that we need to know where they are in their own language and we need a sense of where they are in the emerging language of English. And that’s very true. We have to, though, set up our situation so we build confidence in the English language.

And in some cases we have viewed English language learners as a deficit. You know, the fact that these children have a primary language but they don’t yet speak English, we’ve actually viewed that in some cases as a deficit rather than a plus.

And so what I would say is as we work with our assessments, we need to understand that learning a second language is a very positive, a very rewarding thing and we can approach children from the strength that already exists in their primary language as we move forward.

Delia Pompa: What does the research say about assessing ELL students? Should assessments be given in the native language or in English?

Dr. Coleman: Yes, yes. I mean, you want to, again, know what the platform is for a student in their primary language because we need to see their strengths. We need to see where they are and we need to know what we’re pulling from. It’s very different if a youngster is reading in their primary language already.

That’s a very different youngster than a youngster who is not. Now I would say that this is also important when we think about children who’ve grown up in economically disadvantaged families and in economically disadvantaged areas.

One of the things about a strong language platform that’s so important as we look at reading, we look at readiness, is in a strong language platform language is used to convey ideas. It’s actually used as a thinking tool. It’s used as a way to gather information and express information.

When it’s used in that way, then we begin to understand that the written language is the same thing. Written language is used to express ideas. When I write, I express my ideas. When I read, I can get other people’s ideas. And when we think of reading as the idea exchange, then we want to make sure that children have access to important ideas, things that they’re interested in.

We talked about that a little bit earlier, about finding out what motivates a child, finding out what they’re interested in. If I know what a child is motivated by and I can match them with the kinds of books they want to read, then I have done a better job of enlisting them as an avid reader.

They want the information. For English language learners, for students with learning disabilities, for students who have not had that elaborative language platform to work from it’s even more important that we find out why they should be reading, why they personally want to read.

We make it relevant, we make it engaging and we make it fun for them because they are finding out what they want to know. And then they will approach it more aggressively because they want the information that they’re getting.

Delia Pompa: Thanks, Dr. Coleman. That’s a growing group. We’ve been talking a lot about school-age children but now let’s talk a little bit more about the little kids, the younger kids. To many people the idea of testing a four year old is an anathema. Is there room in assessment for three year olds, four year olds, five year olds?

Dr. Coleman: I think the point was made earlier that the sooner we pick up on the needs of a child, the better equipped we will be to address those needs. So this notion that we can wait around and let things work themselves out probably jeopardizes the trajectory for that child.

What we do is we jeopardize the platform and the emerging platform for success. We also set up a situation where they begin to think, “Gosh, something’s really wrong with me. I must be stupid, I must be lazy, I must be nuts. Something’s wrong with me. But I’m not learning in the way that I should be learning”.

And that has a whole secondary ripple effects of giving up, of deciding that I’m not capable, of deciding that maybe there are other ways that I should be behaving and I can get out of having to do these things that are difficult for me. So we want to understand where children are very early and we want to be able to see what their strengths are, see where their needs are and create environments where the trajectory for success is enhanced.

One of the things that we are leery about, though, is affixing hard-fast labels to children at a very early age. So we are a little less confident about coming in with a three year old, for example, and saying, “Well, this child has a learning disability”. In that sense what we wanna be able to do and the words we use in a program that I direct with a colleague, Virginia Bicey, are recognize and respond.

So we want to be able to recognize their areas of strength and their areas of need and provide instantaneous response to that so that we can make sure that the child is successful. And that says, yes, we use the assessments but we don’t necessarily use them for labeling purposes at these young ages as much as for informing what we do.

Now there are some young children, of course, that we identify specifically with specific areas of disability as well.

Delia Pompa: I know you’ve been working on a model, a sort of tiered approach to assessment. Could you describe that for us?

Dr. Coleman: Well, the model that we’re working on for young children is actually taking the response to intervention approach that is a school-aged approach, but when we think about applying it to younger children, we think about what happens initially for a child.

We want all of our children to be embedded in a quality learning environment, an environment that’s print rich, that’s language rich, that has lots of chances for interaction, lots of what we call high Velcro environment. So there are lots of places for kids to connect with meaningful, relevant ideas and information.

Once we see that kids are in that high Velcro environment-engaging environment that nurtures them, we want to then see which of our children are thriving and which students may need some additional support. In that high Velcro engaging environment that would be what we would think of as tier one of this process of identifying the needs of our students, of our children, children that aren’t thriving in that environment we have to ask why.

And we have to say what is it that this child needs to go beyond. That would be sort of a tier two intervening approach. And at that point we’d be looking specifically at some diagnostic information. We’d be looking strategically at the errors, at the strengths …

We’d be asking three questions. What does this child know? Very important. What doesn’t this child know? Where are the areas where there are gaps? And we’d also be asking where are some of the misconceptions. What are some things that this child is doing because they think this is the way you approach reading or the way you approach something but that’s actually not the best way for them to do it?

And that’s tier two kind of a level approach. The third level, if we think about three levels, would be very strategic, very individualized. This is for a youngster who is still not making the progress that we believe they should be making. This is where special education services become very useful, related services, speech language services, other kinds of supports that are more intensive and that we really couldn’t expect a classroom teacher to do on her own.

This is where that team is really brought to the table and we begin saying what must we do to provide a full 360-wrap around for this youngster so they will make progress and they will be successful. And that’s sort of the tiered approach, that really solid foundation, that intervening where we know we can target specific kinds of learning needs, and finally that entire wrap around with the team looking at what the very specific special needs are for that youngster.

Delia Pompa: You know, we’re not there yet and it’s gonna take us a while to get there, so help us envision what that looks like in the school, where you’ve got that approach that’s gonna help strugglers. And if you can do that briefly it would help.

Dr. Coleman: Okay. Thank you. Well, you know, we aren’t there yet. As it emerges, what we, I think, will be seeing is a much more dynamic classroom, a classroom where assessment is embedded in the day-to-day activities, a classroom where the teacher is always observing for the children and kind of noting and paying attention, a classroom where that information that we’re getting is linked to assessments, is linked to instruction, and then a classroom also where the child is front and center and the assessment forms the bridge between the content we want the child to learn and the child, where they are, who they are, what their strengths and needs are.

And that bridge is explicit, it’s systematic and it’s crossed frequently.

Delia Pompa: Dr. Good, you just heard a wonderful vision for the future but how are we doing now with assessment?

Dr. Good: I think we’re really approaching that vision much more quickly than I ever thought that we could. In the last five years there has been dramatic changes, dramatic improvement. There are schools where this vision is implemented, is working very successfully.

And we’re approaching or reaching every child being on track with three tiers of support. I foresee that really coming even more quickly in more and more schools. It’s not too early to be expecting that of our school right now. We can be looking for that and asking for it.

Delia Pompa: Dr. McKenna, what do these successful schools look like today? How are they using specialists and reading coaches?

Dr. McKenna: Well, to build on what Dr. Coleman just suggested, I might go back to the Metzger classroom example that we saw. This was an illustration of how multiple tiered instruction actually can work within the literacy block. And you saw one child receiving intensive intervention.

I assume that at other times during that block there would have been small groups receiving differentiated instruction. The only way that can happen in any meaningful way is if the teacher is collecting data systematically, interpreting it meaningfully and translating that into instructional plans.

One of the ways that that can happen, and it doesn’t happen overnight, but one of the ways that that can happen best, I think, is to use specialists such as literacy coaches to help them interpret those data, which is one of the major roles I think of a literacy coach, and sit down with them and talk about how small groups might be formed and how to deliver instruction based on what the data are telling us to meet the needs of those children.

And that does not happen overnight because there’s a myth that the core program is the solution to all ills. And, you know, it is the solution for maybe 75% of the kids but it’s the rest that require… There’s multiple tiers of instruction and a coach is really the point guard, I think, of getting that off the ground, getting it started. It’s a new way of thinking.

Delia Pompa: We’ve got a terrific road map for us to do some good work. Thanks, everyone. Now it’s time to take some questions from our audience. And I believe the first questioner is here.

Questioner:I work with the Department of School Improvement and Accountability in Prince George’s County Public Schools System and assessment is kind of the centerpiece of the work that we do. And I’m pretty convinced that teachers understand the value of assessment, but what type of work has been done to convince students the value of assessment?

And the second part is can you imagine a day that a struggling reader will ask to be assessed?

Delia Pompa: Dr. Coleman, you have an answer?

Dr. Coleman: Well, I do. I think all of us probably do.

Delia Pompa: Oh, good. We’ll hear from all of you.

Dr. Coleman: I think that’s a wonderful question and I think that when we think about a youngster who is struggling to read and is learning to read, we will come to a point where children will want to be assessed. It goes back to what you talked about that I think you can elaborate on where when a child sees progress and sees that they are making progress, it is very rewarding.

It is very rewarding to be able to watch that line on that chart go up. It’s also very rewarding to see that when I have a difficult area for me, I can, in fact, do something about it. And with the help of my teachers and with the help of my own perseverance, I can make a difference in my own trajectory.

So I think we may actually see a time where our students are empowered by this process and they feel like they have some voice in this. I think self-assessment is very, very important. I think it helps me understand who I am as a learner, what I need as a learner and where I’m going.

Dr. Good: We have been talking about the role of assessment and really in two ways I think, one in terms of the high stakes accountability assessment that might occur infrequently at the end of the year to provide summative information about how we’re doing.

But the other role of that assessment is formative assessment that informs the teacher day by day about how we’re doing and what we need to do, and informs the student day by day about how we’re doing and what we need to do. Certainly when that struggling reader sees themselves as successful, as having accomplished something this week, boy, are they ready to show off what they have accomplished.

And they will regularly solicit that opportunity to show what they have done, to show what they have accomplished. If they are successful and if they are meeting goals. And that’s the point of our teaching for those struggling readers is for them to be successful, for them to meet goals. Then being able to show that at the end of the year summative assessment is also a desirable thing, not a thing to be avoided.

Dr. Coleman: And we need to make sure that our assessments are not punitive. If assessments are still couched in a punitive approach, of course our children are gonna say I don’t wanna be punished by this. If it’s used as a reward, if it’s used as a recognition, if it’s used to show progress, then our students will engage in that and they will want to be part of it.

Dr. Good: And if it’s used to provide support where necessary.

Dr. Coleman: Where needed.

Delia Pompa: Dr. McKenna, let’s save your brainpower for the next question.

Questioner: I have a couple questions that I’d like to ask. So what type of information can I get from a formal assessment that I cannot get from informal? My second question is how can teachers make informal assessments less like a formal?

Delia Pompa: Informal and formal.

Dr. McKenna: I think that there’s a widespread myth that the only really useful data that you can get from any assessment is the kind of high powered, one-on-one, norm-referenced assessments that special educators tend to use and that we use at, for example, the McGuffy Reading Clinic.

These are assessments that take a long time to learn how to give and interpret. And if you’re of the mindset in a classroom that that’s really the only way to solve the mystery of the given child, then you’re going to discount the possibility of informal assessments.

But the fact is that there’s a great potential in the administration of very informal assessments. To give one example, a first grade teacher who has a list of high frequency words can easily convert that into a site word inventory which has immediate payoff in terms of planning instruction for the next day. That’s an informal assessment that’s extremely useful and it’s one of many.

Dr. Coleman: I think one of the things that you mentioned earlier was the word systematic, and you’ve used the word purposeful, and when we think about assessment from a systematic and purposeful way, then it doesn’t so much matter whether it’s informal or formal.

Have we been systematic about paying attention and are we paying attention for the purpose of understanding which site words are used and read and recognized, and what are we going to do if we see that some have or have not been recognized?

Dr. McKenna: I very much like your idea of involving kids in this assessment progress, de-mystifying it, explaining exactly why you’re giving these assessments so that you can signal their progress and make them really more willing participants and collaborators actually in conducting the assessments and seeing the payoff.

Dr. Coleman: Yep.

Dr. Good: And I would also add that today the line between formal and informal assessment is really beginning to blur and we’re able to get a variety of sources of information in a variety of ways. The important part of the assessment, however we do it, is are we using that to improve outcomes for our students.

Delia Pompa: These are terrific ideas for weaving assessment into instruction throughout the day. I think it’ll be very useful for a lot of folks. We have another question.

Questioner: Hello. My question is in the area of comprehension. When you’re assessing comprehension skills, how do you separate out the effects of weak decoding, vocabulary and background knowledge? So how can good quality assessments isolate these skills for instruction?

Delia Pompa: Don’t everyone jump at once.

Dr. Coleman: That was a great question.

Dr. Good: What we’re looking for is proficient readers, readers who have really well-developed skills in a variety of areas. A powerful way of thinking about that is really to divide reading proficiency into language, vocabulary and background knowledge, sort of facility with the verbal language in being able to solve questions, reason verbally, understand language and decoding skills.

Now I’m not trying to say that reading is simple, it’s just two things. Each one of these then has multiple components that go into it. But a very first beginning analysis is, can they go from text to language and then can they understand that language that they have.

So we can look at listening comprehension and we can look at vocabulary and isolation for reading, but we also need to look at decoding, at fluency with text, at sort of facility with decode as well. And we need to examine both of those and make sure that they’re on track.

Delia Pompa: Dr. McKenna, did you wanna add something to that?

Dr. McKenna: Oh, I think that a couple of ways have been tried fairly successfully over the past and one of them has been to go back to something Dr. Coleman said, is to contrast reading comprehension with listening comprehension where the heavy lifting of the decoding is being done by the examiner to see what differences may exist to control for that factor.

And another is to select familiar topics and to pre-assess prior knowledge so that that can be accounted for if that is really the limiting factor and not simply attributed it to deficiency in comprehension skills and strategies.

Dr. Coleman: And provide that prior knowledge when we see that it’s needed. So we set up some planned experiences for children to get them ready to read this book. So we know they might not have any prior knowledge with visiting a zoo, but we take some virtual field trips to the zoo.

And we talk about the animals in the zoo before we begin reading the book as well.

Delia Pompa: Thank you. We have lots of questions today. Can we move onto the next one?

Questioner: I’m the supervisor of a large public school system in the literacy area and it seems to me it would take a superstar teacher to do what we’re asking — assess the child’s skills, evaluate the results, use the results to determine how to intervene in a very specific way and do this with 25 kids.

Is it realistic to expect that the average teacher is going to have time and expertise to do this well?

Dr. McKenna: I think there’s an altered mindset that’s gonna be necessary for that to happen, but I don’t think you need an all-pro teacher to step in to the breach and make this happen. It’s not gonna happen overnight but you’ll find that over time the amount of assessment is actually fairly limited.

It’s just a different approach to planning instruction and being a lot less assumptive that certain things are happening when they may not be. We’re beginning to see this happen in teacher preparation programs for teachers before they get into the field so that they begin to learn these methods before they’re ever in live classroom settings.

Dr. Good: And as far as I’m concerned, all teachers are superstars. You have to be in order to do this well. But a key to this is efficiency. And there are models of how to accomplish all of those purposes efficiently and there are schools where it is occurring where you can actually she how it all works and how it is all integrated in a purposeful manner.

Delia Pompa: Thank you all. Now I’d like to get a final thought from each of our panelists. Dr. McKenna, can we start with you?

Dr. McKenna: I think the main lesson that’s apparent these days about assessment is the fact that we need to dispel the myth that reading assessment in classroom settings is not necessary. That this is something that [are] left to specialists and that the materials they have are well-designed and will meet the needs of all students.

This simply is not true. And that we need to get around this way of thinking and to begin to implement assessment strategies that will lead us really to a three-tiered approach that allows us to adequately differentiate to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population of students.

Delia Pompa: Thank you very much. Dr. Good.

Dr. Good: I think assessment plays a very essential role. It needs to tell us as educators where a student is, where they need to get to to be on track. It needs to help us chart a trajectory or a rate of progress to get to there and it has to tell us when we need to adjust what we’re doing to make sure that we make adequate progress.

I think the bottom line of all of this discussion about assessment is that if we’re going to assess, the very most important thing for us to do is to do something about that information when we get it. If we’re assessing and we’re not doing anything with it, let’s spend our time teaching instead.

Delia Pompa: Thanks. Dr. Coleman.

Dr. Coleman: I think when we look at assessment we need to remember the diversity of our students. We need to make sure that we’re very clear that the assessments that we do are done proactively, that are done for a purpose of helping our students grow, learn and do better and are done because we want to provide the very best opportunities we can for each and all of our students to respond and thrive in our learning situations.

And I think with assessment done that way we will help our students be successful and we won’t leave children behind.

Delia Pompa: Thank you all so very much, and thank you for joining us for this Reading Rockets webcast. For more information about how you can help the struggling readers in your lives, please visit us on the web at And while you’re there, please let us know your thoughts about this program.

Click on webcast to find our online survey. Again, thank you for joining us and take care.

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