A long-held maxim in education is that teaching and assessment are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, a major view is that assessment IS instruction (Glazer, 1998). In the current climate for educational accountability, assessment has become a red-hot topic in research, policy and professional development. Some types of current literacy assessment practices have provoked parent and student demonstrations and campaigns as well as spurred researchers to challenge new state and national assessment programs. This column reviews aspects of current literacy assessment by defining purposes and types of assessment, outlining principles of effective assessment and describing exemplary literacy assessment practices that can be applied in school library programs.
Assessment purposes and types
Assessment is gathering information about student abilities; evaluation is using that information to make judgments about student abilities. Two major types of assessment are traditional and alternative. Norm-referenced tests, the most typical type of traditional assessment, compare an individual or group to a group of other similar individuals. Increasingly, results of these tests are used for making important decisions such as graduation, teacher hiring, school funding and even real estate prices. The International Reading Association (1999) summarizes problems with high stakes assessment in reading, including an emphasis on lower level skills and causing "teaching to the test," a phenomenom especially in schools with diverse populations. The IRA stresses that scores from high stakes assessment are not intended to evaluate individual students and that "assessment should be used to improve instruction and benefit students rather than compare and pigeonhole them."
In contrast, alternative assessment practices such as informal reading inventories, writing conferences, reading logs, observation checklists, rubrics and rating scales directly inform classroom instruction and benefit students. Some teachers also use traditional assessment methods including commercial measures and teacher-made tests. It is important to gather multiple types of data across the major dimensions of students' literacy development: skills and strategies; knowledge; attitude; and scope of reading. Evidence should focus not only on products (final scores and marks on reading and writing tasks), but also on literacy processes (e.g., strategies for decoding, comprehending, and composing text; background knowledge used; self-awareness and control of literacy processes). When compiled into individual student portfolios, such rich data ensures accountability for the teacher and opportunity to advance for the student.
Principles of effective assessment
Drawing on extensive literature in both pedagogy and cognition, literacy researchers have identified the following guidelines for improving assessment and, conversely, improving instruction (summarized in Barrentine, 1999):
* Combine skills with higher-order thinking;
* Embed skills in context;
* Apply skills to real world situations.;
* Recognize that individual students learn in different ways, at different rates, and bring different background experiences;
* Use the powerful role of interest and purpose; and
* Use multiple sources of evidence.
What do these principles look like in real classrooms? The National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (2002) have launched a powerful initiative based on the confluence of critical thinking and literacy instruction. The ReadWriteThink project offers a growing bank of lesson plans that provide models of meaningful assessment. Lesson plans relevant to teacher-librarians include those focused on report writing, voluntary …