Mention "assessment" in a conversation about education and watch the way people react: Children cringe over test pressure, parents stress about their child’s performance and teachers puzzle over results. As dreaded as it may be, assessment is critical to education. In middle school, reading assessments guide instruction and curriculum development to insure that every student is on the path to college and career readiness.
Most states mandate standardized tests to monitor yearly student progress in reading. State and federal education officials use data from these tests to evaluate schools and teachers and to decide how to allocate money and resources. Tests may be norm referenced or criterion referenced. Norm referenced tests gauge how well a child performs compared to his peers taking the same test across the state or across the country. Criterion referenced tests show how many students achieve at or above a predetermined passing score. Selected eighth-graders take the National Assessment of Educational Performance, a criterion referenced test used to measure how states compare in reading and math and evaluate the nation’s educational system as a whole.
To assure middle school students can read at grade level, schools may give students diagnostic tests to assess their ability to recognize words and decipher sentences, called a lexile level; the ability to read aloud with appropriate pacing and expression, called fluency; and their ability to understand ideas in the text, called comprehension. A middle school student deficient in any of these areas will likely struggle in any class that requires reading. A reading specialist might use a test such as the Quality Reading Inventory to help diagnose a reading disorder. Textbook companies and other educational publishers make diagnostic tests and software that teachers can use to determine the reading skills students need to work on. Schools might administer placement tests to new students in the proper classroom or grade level.
Middle school students take summative assessments in class at the end of a study unit so the teacher can assess which students have achieved the unit’s learning goals and objectives. Summative assessments, sometimes known as benchmark tests, also mark the student's growth as a reader. Unless a student enters the school year reading well above grade level, teachers and parents should expect to see growth throughout the year. How many benchmarks a student takes depends on how many units of study are built into the curriculum for that grade level. Summative assessments may count as a significant part of a student’s grade.
Teachers use formative assessment to measure student progress toward a goal or objective. For example, if a class has been studying using context clues to define unfamiliar words, the teacher might ask students to fill in a chart with columns for new words, text clues and possible definitions. At the end of class, the teacher collects the chart to decide what type of lesson on context clues she should use the next day. The teacher will also discover which students may need extra help working with the strategy. Parents could also look at these papers when students come home to see how their children are doing, and students should be able to use teacher comments on formative assessment to improve their work.
David Raudenbush has more than 20 years of experience as a literacy teacher, staff developer and literacy coach. He has written for newspapers, magazines and online publications, and served as the editor of "Golfstyles New Jersey Magazine." Raudenbush holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's degree in education.