Is Your Testing on the Level? Achievement Level Tests Drive Instruction to Success

By Montague, Dave | Multimedia Schools, May-June 2000 | Go to article overview

Is Your Testing on the Level? Achievement Level Tests Drive Instruction to Success


Montague, Dave, Multimedia Schools


"That's never going to happen! We can't do that!" That was how several teachers at Washington Elementary School responded to reading goals we set based on new state education reform laws and changes from our school board. It's a cry familiar to any organization that sets new, higher goals.

The concern is genuine. Without change, new goals are difficult to reach. But as our team realized the benefits in what our legislature and board advocated, we quickly went to work to make it happen.

Our goals included new state education benchmarks, called Essential Learning Requirements (ELRs), and our board's "90 percent reading goal" (i.e., all third graders within the district should read at or above grade level(1)). With this clear challenge before us, we set out to find the tools that would help us meet our goal.

Tests Highlight Student Progress

Knowing how to read is essential to mastering other subjects. That's why the board asserted, "Assessing elementary reading should be the first step in assessing student achievement in grades three through 12."

We agreed with that assertion; therefore, we began our steps toward academic change by implementing an assessment tool that would provide the data we needed to measure and track student growth. Since one of our goals is mastering the ELRs, which are measured in fourth grade through our state test, our tool had to measure progress prior to this grade. It also had to show us where and how changes should be made to meet the goals on time.

We chose the Northwest Evaluation Association's (NWEA) Achievement Level Test for Reading as our assessment tool. Also known as the functional level test, it provides curriculum-referenced data that aligns with and measures our standards.

These tests provide accurate information about individual student growth because students take the test level that matches their ability level. They show growth well for low-, average- or high-achieving students.

Additionally, scores are interpretable across grade levels. As a result, the tests provide a fair and reliable measure of student achievement over each school year. The tests are exactly what we need to track student progress toward our 90 percent reading goal and our ELRs.

Our school of 460 students administers the tests beginning in the spring of second grade, in the fall and spring in third and fourth grades, and in the spring of fifth grade. Scores for the tests are returned within a few days, while the test material is still fresh.

In addition to the level tests, a computer-based version, called Computerized Adaptive Tests (CAT), is available. Because scoring for these tests is immediate, schools have a quick way to screen students, place new students in school programs, and "spot check" student progress.

Test Items Linked to New Curriculum

While important, the new assessments were only part of our reading program transformation. We also began work on changing out curriculum, aligning it with the ELRs and board goals. In this way the tests, which align with the curriculum, would measure progress toward the goals.

Our changes included three vital elements. First, we made sure academics took first place in our school. For example, in some classrooms we trimmed the time used for art projects. Such work now takes place only after basic instruction is finished.

Second, we changed our focus from process to results. If our method for reading instruction doesn't produce results, we change it. The assessment information drives the curriculum.

Third, we recognized the value of accountability. We send progress reports via student to parents, and reports via school to the district and the public. These reports are developed from our assessment data and keep us on track toward our goals. Accountability also extended to a local reading foundation, which ran a campaign to encourage parents to read 20 minutes a day with their children. …

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