Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Behind Test Scores: What Struggling Readers Really Need (1)

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Behind Test Scores: What Struggling Readers Really Need (1)

Article excerpt

Every year thousands of students take standardised tests and state reading tests, and every year thousands fail them. With the implementation of No Child Left Behind, which mandates testing all children from grades 3-8 every year, these numbers will grow exponentially and alarming numbers of schools and students will be targeted for 'improvement'. Whether you believe this increased focus on testing is good news or bad, if you are an educator, you are undoubtedly concerned about the children who struggle every day with reading, and the implications of their test failure.

Although legislators, administrators, parents, and educators have been warned repeatedly not to rely on a single measure to make important instructional decisions (Elmore, 2002; Linn, nd; Shepard, 2000), scores from state tests still seem to drive the search for programs and approaches that will help students learn and meet state standards. The popular press, educational publications, teacher workshops, and state and school district policies are filled with attempts to find solutions for poor test performance. For example, some schools have eliminated sustained silent reading in favour of more time for explicit instruction (Edmondson & Shannon, 2002; Riddle Buly & Valencia, 2002), others are buying special programs or mandating specific interventions (Goodnough, 2001; Helfand, 2002), and some states and districts are requiring teachers to have particular instructional emphases (McNeil, 2000; Paterson, 2000; Riddle Buly & Valencia, 2002). Furthermore, it is common to find teachers spending enormous amounts of time preparing students for these high-stakes tests (Olson, 2001), even though a narrow focus on preparing students for specific tests does not translate into real learning (Linn, 2000; Klein, Hamilton, McCaffrey, & Stecher, 2000). But, if we are really going to help students, we need to understand the underlying reasons for their test failure. Simply knowing which children have failed state tests is a bit like knowing that you have a fever when you are feeling in, but having no idea what is causing the fever or what it will take to feel better. A test score, like a fever, is a symptom that demands more specific analysis of the problem. In this case, what is needed is a more in-depth analysis of the strengths and needs of students who fail to meet standards, and instructional plans that will meet their needs.

In this article, we draw from the results of an empirical study of students who failed a typical, 4th grade state reading assessment (see Riddle Buly & Valencia, 2002 for a full description of the study). Specifically we describe the patterns of performance that distinguish different groups of students who failed to meet standards and we provide suggestions for what classroom teachers need to know and how they might help these children succeed.

Context

Our research was conducted in a typical Northwestern school district of 18,000 students located adjacent to the largest urban district in the state. At the time of our study, 43', were students of colour and 47% received free or reduced-price lunch. Over the past several years, approximately 50% of students had failed the state 4th grade reading test which, like many other standards-based state assessments, consisted of several extended narrative and expository reading selections accompanied by a combination of multiple-choice and open-ended comprehension questions. For the purposes of this study, we randomly selected 108 students during September of 5th grade who had scored below standard on the state test give at the end of 4th grade. These 108 students constituted approximately 10% of failing students in the district. None of them were receiving supplemental special education or English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) services. We wanted to understand the 'garden variety' (Stanovich, 1988) test failure those students typically found in the regular classroom who are experiencing reading difficulty but have not been identified as needing special services or intensive interventions. …

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