Growing Gains

Diane Glass explains why measuring reading growth should be a top priority for educators

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are transforming the way that reading is taught and assessed. The complexity of texts associated with the CCSS exceeds the level of the reading material typically used in our schools. New proficiency standards are more rigorous and link directly to more sophisticated texts, some of which are intended for post-secondary readers. To reach the goal of college and career readiness for literacy involves improving rigor in actual content and materials. The instructional implications for all teachers, not just those who specialize in English Language Arts, are enormous.

The CCSS aim to coax out analytical depth through increased text complexity, which will define a new role for teachers. In this new role, teachers will facilitate content discovery, collaborate across grade levels, and use data to refine and differentiate instruction. Students will have new roles, too. They will no longer be passive consumers of instructional content. Rather, they will be expected to take ownership of their own learning. The changes brought about by the CCSS are far-reaching. Nextgeneration assessments, in development now, will change the face of accountability and proficiency testing, with a new emphasis on analytical thinking and performance tasks. At the same time, new teacher and principal evaluation systems are putting a premium on student growth as a key metric in career development. To foster the needed growth in reading, educators can no longer rely solely on the curriculum-based measures of quizzes, tests, and unit exams to interpret reading proficiency.

Curriculum-based measures can be self-reinforcing and do not always indicate if readers are growing. To improve literacy development, educators also need assessments that track to an objective outcome, which could be addressed using growth measures. Growth measures provide the road map to the CCSS by:

  • Quantifying literacy goals to college and career readiness;
  • Broadening responsibility for literacy development across the content areas;
  • Improving student ownership in learning.

Growth measures reflect the rate of academic progress students make over time. Quantitative, equally incremented, and typically on a single scale, growth measures are objective and outcomes-based, targeting a specific goal. They differ from other forms of assessment, such as curriculum-based measures, which tend to report on the students’ mastery of the actual content. Growth measures do not identify whether standards-based content was covered in the classroom. Instead they report on the student reading progress demonstrated as a result of appropriate curriculum and instruction. Growth measures focuses on what was learned rather than what was taught.

Accountability Growth measures broaden accountability for literacy development to content area teachers and, importantly, to our students. When curriculum- based measures are used as the only measure to describe student progress, the underlying questions remain:

  • “What content has the teacher imparted?”
  • “Were the standards covered?”
  • “Was the curriculum taught?”

If standards and content are the central focus, and achievement is recognized through curriculum-based measures, the subject-area teachers are held accountable, usually in isolation. This ignores the interconnected nature of learning: that a child’s literacy skills must scale to the science classroom and to the social studies text. All teachers need information on student readiness for instruction to differentiate learning and maximize instruction. By measuring growth, schools can set clear, targeted goals.

When reading goals are quantitative and objectively based and not solely qualitative and subject specific, then all texts — nonfiction and fiction — books and articles, print or electronic — can be accessed in the service of these goals. Because of their objective nature, growth measures can encompass all reading — not just growth in the English Language Arts or Reading classrooms, where responsibility has historically been quartered. The use of growth measures should not be interpreted as a call to sidestep explicit reading instruction for primary students and older struggling readers. Growth measures are best used in tandem with curriculum-based measures especially for struggling readers. These measures add flexibility to instruction.

A teacher may find it difficult to make adjustments to instruction if the gist of the assessment process concerns itself with reporting on curriculum and standards. By measuring growth, schools can interpret how students respond to instruction and understand the effects of change and innovation. To meet college and career readiness goals, new gains in literacy proficiency depend on students developing skills to comprehend nonfiction and informational texts — the natural domain of content area subjects like science and social studies.

Meanwhile the texts associated with literature serve to develop critical thinking skills and help students derive meaning from their worlds. Text associated with science, history, and technology track higher on quantitative readability measures. They are denser, more complex, use specific vocabulary, and are less subject to interpretation. Non-fictional texts and the involvement of content area teachers in literacy development are the essential drivers for college and career readiness.

Student Ownership of Learning Growth measures can drive student ownership of learning. When teachers set individual, obtainable, realistic goals that both honor and challenge the student, that student can be expected to participate in his or her literacy development. Growth measures provide data that can inform such goal setting, thus reinforcing student ownership.

Students who take a growth assessment in the fall can work with their teachers to review data, understand what it means about their unique academic needs. Children will challenge themselves, set goals, and then use the results of subsequent tests to monitor their own progress. When setting individual goals for students, a key understanding is that while growth rates may vary, an interim decline in a student growth trajectory is a signal to educators that immediate action should be taken. When students experience failure, it is rarely a result of an emergent academic problem but rather it is the result of an incremental and cumulative decline in growth.

As schools move away from a wait-to-fail model before intervention, setting individual growth trajectories becomes a clear method to prevent possible failure of both struggling and on-level readers. In a busy classroom, how is a teacher guided to set individual growth goals? Many times we set goals based on average growth, the annual growth a proficient student will make. Setting goals based on an average works well when discussing large enrollments, but this metric underserves struggling readers. If average growth is an expectation applied equally to all students, the struggling students will not have received a goal that accelerates them to grade-level proficiency, or college and career readiness. Indeed, setting average growth as a single metric for all students perpetuates an insufficient trajectory for those most in need of increased intensity of services.

If a student’s annual gain is measured by average growth, that student, if not on grade level, will year after year fall further and further away from achieving college and career readiness by graduation. Goals should be set based on the starting point of the individual readers and targeted to various benchmarks including multi-year trajectories. A struggling older reader who is four or five years behind cannot reasonably be expected to close the performance gap in a single year; but over two years, could become grade-level proficient. A similar but inverse situation occurs with our high-performing readers.

A student who is closer to the goal of college and career readiness has a smaller gap to close before reaching that target. Eventually, that student’s growth will be in smaller increment and may actually be less than the growth exhibited by the average reader. When setting goals, we should expect older more proficient readers to grow less than younger less proficient readers, and we should expect less proficient readers grow more than their more proficient peers. To set growth expectations, data from a norm-referenced tool reporting on a vertical scale should be used as the basis for setting individual goals.

How Growth Measures Support CCSS

In the transition to the Common Core State Standards, these types of measures directly support the underlying philosophy of this initiative. First, growth measures placing greater value on the products of learning rather than the details of content delivery. The simple refocus on measuring what was learned versus what was taught supports the changing relationship between teacher and student. Second, growth measures provide clear, explicit tools to drive student ownership in their own learning to the quantifiable goal of college and career readiness. Third, they support shared goals across grade levels and across content for focused and sustained efforts in improving student literacy levels.

Finally, they provide an anchor amid change. By measuring students on a vertical scale before the implementation of new standards, and benchmarking student growth throughout the process of change, educators can interpret the direction and gauge the success of their new initiative.

Hallmark of Growth Measures

  1. They are obtained from assessment tools that are norm referenced.
  2. They report on a vertical scale so that growth is interpretable across grade levels.
  3. They are sensitive to student growth that is far above and far below grade level
  4. They feature an independent, outcomes-based measure.
  5. They articulate multiple benchmarks and provide data on expected annual growth expectations at all levels of proficiency.

References

Gewertz, Catherine (2011). “Success of College-Readiness Intervention Hard to Gauge.” Education Week, January 26, 2011. Knutson, Kim et al. (2011) Growth Expectations; Setting Obtainable Goal for Students, New York: Scholastic, Inc. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Appendix A. Washington, DC: Author. Smith, Malbert (2012) “Not So Common, Comparing Lexiles with the Text Complexity Measures of Other Tools.” Accessed August 28, 2012 Lexile.com Williamson, G. L. (2008). A Text Readability Continuum for Postsecondary Readiness. Journal of Advanced Academics, vol. 19 (4), 602-632.

Diane Glass manages assessment programs for Scholastic Inc. and writes frequently on assessment topics.

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