assessment, being a teacher, Literacy, Reading

A Notecard Check – A Simple Way to Check for Understanding

Students’ answers to when I asked when does reading suck…

Ask our students what makes them hate reading and many of them will say the work that comes after.  The reading logs, the essays, the taking notes when reading, the post-its, the to-do’s.  Not the act of reading itself.  They share their truths year after year and year after year, I wonder how I am going to see whether they really are understanding and learning without making them drown in assignments that make them hate reading.  It is a hard balance to find, especially if your students like ours have reading abilities that range from years above grade level to years below.

While the students will be working on other skills with their reading, right now, we are working on increasing stamina and enjoying their books, a skill that some of our students need a lot of work on.  When we introduce too much to them to do, that is when they end up not really working on their reading but rather hunting the text for their answer. This is when they start to dislike reading.  While being able to disseminate a text and do the heavy work with text analysis is important, I cannot have them do that all of the time, not every time they read.  After all, how many adults do that every time they read?

This year, my colleague, Reidun offered up a great idea;  the simple notecard.  The notecard is unassuming.  It is limited in its scope based on its size and it also does not take much time.  Rather than writing anything long, which we only do once in a while, when students have been introduced to a teaching point such as writers using emotive language, we then ask them to return to their own self-selected text and look for an example.  As they read they find a sentence or two, write it down and hand it to us.

A student’s example of descriptive language found within her text.

When I have a moment, I am able to quickly scan through to see who got it and who didn’t, make a note of it and then figure out who needs to be in one of our small groups.  Who gets it, who doesn’t.  The kids spend most of their time reading, rather than taking notes, and I get a chance to peek into their thought process.

As the year progresses, our skill focus will change, our questions will deepen, and yet, offering students time to “simply” read is something that we will continue to protect every single day.  The notecard allows me to peek at skills, to inform my instruction, and to collect data.  All without causing a major interruption in their time with the text.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.



assessment, being a teacher, Reading

How to Assess Student Reading Skills Without Knowing the Book They Are Reading

A question I am asked often is how do I know what my readers know when they are all reading their own self-chosen books?  How do I keep them accountable for their reading?  How do I know what they can do without knowing the book they are reading?

And I get it.  How do we adequately assess the readers we have for their growth in comprehension when we don’t have them DO stuff all of the time?  Because that’s the thing, one of the biggest reasons that kids report for hating reading is actually the stuff we have them do after they read, not the actual reading itself.  It seems as if we have forgotten a few simple lessons that academics such as Louise Rosenblatt have been trying to remind us of for years.  Kids need relevant reading experiences that not only teach them how to be better readers but also help them grow or protect their love of reading.  I think I just summarized the goal of my book Passionate Readers here.

Yet, when we constantly attach something to the very act of reading, we diminish the act itself.  So how do we assess without harming?

A few things first, our students get ten minutes of protected self-chosen reading every day.  It is the very first thing we do.  If I had more time to teach (darn you 45 minutes), it would be a longer period of time.  During those ten minutes, the only thing our students are working on is reading a great book.  There are no post-its, no jots, no turn-and-talk.  They are working on their reading relationship, nothing else, because that task is big enough in itself.  While they read I check in with them, not to have them do stuff or talk about their book, but to talk about themselves as readers.   To help them establish or continue a connection to the act of reading itself.

Then we move into our mini-lesson, whatever that may be.  If the day is focused on reading then after we read the students then apply the skills as they read their own books if they can, a central tenet to our teaching always being; be able to use the skill when needed but you don’t have to use it all of the time.

We use read aloud, picture books, or short stories to model and discuss what readers need.  If students are asked to do a long-term project with their own books such as focusing on character development, symbolism, or analysis in some capacity,  then I model what that may look like within a read aloud.  I can sort out from their own writing whether they grasped the depth of the skill or if they merely skimmed the surface.  I don’t need to know the plot of their book to do this.  If I have questions I ask or look at the book they used.

If I need to narrow my scope then I will model a skill using a short story or a picture book (aren’t they almost the same?!) and then have either another short story or a stack of picture books to hand to them as they try out the skill for themselves.  Because I know all of the picture books and short stories I can quickly assess whether they understood it or not and use their work to further my own instruction.  Simple and yet it works every time.  Students get to balance reading their own self-selected text with the work of the classroom and we have created a balance between teaching skills and establishing the love.

And there you have it, how I assess my students’ skills without needing to have them do a reading journal – one of the number one things my students attribute to causing a hatred of reading – and without needing to know every single book they are reading.  Sometimes it is the simple things that make the biggest difference.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.


assessment, being a teacher, being me, testing

Dear STAR Test, We Need to Talk

Dear STAR,

We first met two years ago, I was fresh out of a relationship with MAP, that stalwart older brother of yours that had taken up hours of my 5th graders time.  They took their time and the results were ok; sometimes, at least we thought so but we were not sure.  But oh the time MAP and I spent together that could have been used for so many better things.

So when I heard about you, STAR, and how you would give me 46 reading skills in 11 different domains in just 30 or so questions, I was intrigued.  After all, 34 timed questions meant that most of my students would spend about 15 or so minutes with you.  You promised me flexibility and adaptation to my students with your fancy language where you said you “…combine computer-adaptive technology with a specialized psychometric test design.”  While I am not totally sure what psychometric means, I was always a sucker for fancy words.   Game on.

With your fast-paced questions, I thought of all the time we would save.  After all, tests should be quick and painless so we can get on with things, right?  Except giving my students only 120 seconds to read a question and answer it correctly meant they got awfully good at skimming, skipping lines, and in general being more worried about timing out than being able to read the whole text.  (Fun fact, a fellow teacher timed out of most of her questions when she took the test in training and still received above 11th-grade level).  For vocabulary, all they get is 60 seconds because either they know it or they don’t, never mind that some of my kids try to sound words out and double-check their answer all within those precious seconds, just like I have taught them to do.  I watched in horror as students’ anxiety grew.  In fact, your 120 second time limit on reading passages meant that students started to believe that being a great reader was all about speed.  Nevermind that Thomas Newkirk’s research into reading pace tells us that we should strive for a comfortable pace and not a fast one.  So yes, being a slow reader= bad reader.  Thanks, STAR.

And yet, maybe it was just my first year with you.  After all, we all have growing pains.  But this year, it didn’t get better, it just got worse.  Students whose scores dropped 4 grade levels and students whose scores jumped 4 grade levels.  Or how about those that made no growth at all.  I didn’t know what to take credit for.  Was it possible that I was the worst teacher ever to have taught 7th grade ELA or perhaps the best?  You confused me, STAR, on so many occasions.  So when students significantly dropped, they sometimes got to re-test, after all, perhaps they were just having a bad day?  And sure, sometimes they went up more than 250 points, all in the span of 24 hours, but other times they dropped that amount as well.  That is a lot of unmotivated or “bad day” students apparently.   And yet, you tell me that your scores are reliable.  Yet, I guess they aren’t always, after all, at the 7th-grade reading level you only got a score of .82 retest reliability which you say is really good but to me doesn’t sound that way.  0.82 – shouldn’t it be closer to 1.0?  In fact, when your company compared you to other recognized standardized tests it dropped to 0.70 for 7th grade, but perhaps it was because of the small sampling size, just 3, 924 students?  Who knows? I suppose I could email you to ask for more updated results like it says in the very small footnote.

Yet through all of this, you have dazzled me with your data.  With all of the reports that I could print out and pour over.  Perhaps you were not accurate for all of my students, but certainly, you had to be for some.  It wasn’t until a long night spent pondering why some of my students’ scores were so low that I realized that in your 0.81 reliability lies my 0.19 insecurity.  After all, who are those kids whose scores are not reliable?   I could certainly guess but the whole point of having an accurate assessment means that I shouldn’t have to.  So it doesn’t feel like you are keeping up your end of the deal anymore, STAR test.  In fact, I am pretty sure that my own child will never make your acquaintance, at least not if we, her parents, have anything to say about it.

So dear STAR test, I love data as much as the next person.  I love reliable, accurate data that doesn’t stress my students out.  That doesn’t make them really quiet when they realize that perhaps they didn’t make the growth.  I love data that I can rely on and it turns out STAR, I just don’t think you fit that description.  Perhaps I should have realized that sooner when I saw your familial relationship with Accelerated Reader.  Don’t even get me started on that killer of reading joy.  You even mention it yourself in your technical manual that there may be measurements errors.  You said,  Measurement error causes students’ scores to fluctuate around their “true scores”. About half of all observed scores are smaller than the students’ true scores; the result is that some students’ capabilities are underestimated to some extent.”  Granted it wasn’t until page 81.  So you can wow me with all of your data reports.  With all of your breakdowns and your fancy graphs.  You can even try to woo me with your trend scores, your anticipated rate of growth and your national percentile rankings.  But it is not enough, because none of that matters if I can’t count on you to provide me with accurate results. It doesn’t matter if I can’t trust what you tell me about my students.

So I wish  I could break up with you, but it seems we have been matched for the long run for now.  All I can be thankful for is that I work for a district that sees my students for more than just one test, for more than just their points because does anyone actually know what those points mean?  I can be so thankful that I work in a district that encourages us to use STAR as only one piece of the data puzzle, that chooses to see beyond it so we can actually figure out a child’s needs.   But I know I am lucky, not everyone that is with you has that same environment. So dear STAR, I wish you actually lived up to all of your fancy promises, but from this tired educator to you; it turns out I don’t need you to see if my students are reading better because I can just ask them, watch them, and see them grow as they pick up more and more books.  So that’s what I plan on doing rather than staring at your reports, because in the end, it’s not really you, it’s me.  I am only sorry it took me so long to realize it.



PS:  I am grateful that Renaissance Learning did reach out to me to discuss my post, here is their response:

Renaissance Learning is deeply committed to teacher success in the classroom. I am the STAR Product Marketer and read your blog regarding our product. I welcome the opportunity to talk with you about your concerns and help you get the best experiences with Renaissance!

I captured two primary issues from your blog:

  1. STAR Reading Time Limits
  2. Reliability

STAR Reading Time Limits

I wanted to make sure you know that you can set an extended time preference in the software to help reduce students’ test anxiety and frustration. The instructions for doing so are on page 217 in our STAR Reading software manual.

On page 12 of our STAR Reading technical manual there’s an overview of testing time by grade that illustrates guidance for timing. This information can be used to assess what is the best time limits for your students (based on analysis of testing conducted in the fall of 2011).


Reliability is a far more complex topic. There are three things to look at when discussing this topic: Reliability, Validity and Standard Error of Measurement (SEM).

Reliability is the extent to which a test yields consistent results from one test administration to another. Validity is the degree to which it measures what it is intended to measure and is often used to judge a test’s effectiveness. Standard error of measurement (SEM) measures the precision of a test score. It provides a means to gauge the extent to which scores would be expected to fluctuate because of imperfect reliability, which is a characteristic of all educational tests. These elements are described in detail in the Understanding Why STAR Test Scores Fluctuate.

STAR assessments have been independently reviewed and certified by the National Center on Response to Intervention and the National Center on Intensive Intervention  and received high ratings as a screening and progress monitoring tool based on the criteria set forth to meet exceptional standards.

And my response:

Thank you for your response; the time limit is not something decided by me but by my district, but the fact that the product even comes with one should be debated further; what does time have to do with reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge besides the selling point of being able to administer it quickly?
 The next point is the reliability; you seem to have missed the major point of the post, which is that when we do not know which child’s scores are reliable or not, then it becomes very hard to use the test for anything.  While I have read the document you linked again (I had read it before the post) it doesn’t yield any new information.   In fact,  it appears that teachers are expected to either assume it is because of something going on with the child or a measurement error.  The reliability for 7th grade as reported by STAR itself is 0.70 as referenced on page 25 in this manual.  According to the technical manual the SEM reported on page 41 in table 12 it is 71.74 for 7th grade.  That is incredibly high error measurement when it comes to kids’ scores, and yet that wouldn’t cover the fluctuation that we see in many students.
While I appreciate your response, I stand by the post; it is a travesty that teachers are being evaluated based upon tests like this, particularly when they are meant to be a diagnostic tool.  And while scores are probably accurate for some students it is hard to figure out who they are accurate for and who they are not.  My only wish for the future is that the test is either more accurate or somehow allows us to better decide which children’s scores are accurate.
assessment, being a teacher, grades, No grades, Student dreams

How to Make Grades About Students Again

Our first semester ended last week.  I have been working on grades, both standards scores and letter grades, for the past 3 days.  Pondering.  Wondering.  Pulling my hair out as I try to figure out which box to place my students in as we try to assess the growth that has happened.  In the end of it all, I am reminded of how much I still hate grades.

And yet, within this process of distilling my students down to a single letter comes an amazing opportunity for conversation.  Within the very simplification of all of the learning they have done, we have had an awesome chance to change the notion of what that score or letter means.

So how can we make grades and scores about the students again?

Start with a student definition.  Our very first conversation was the definition of each letter grade; a seemingly simple topic of conversation that shows just what students think grades measure; hard work, effort, being able to follow deadlines.  Very few students really understood that grades are supposed to measure knowledge.  Not work habits.  Not personalities.  In fact, many students said that the teacher is who is in control of grades (which, of course, there is an ounce of truth in) but they had never thought about how they could control the score.  How the choices they make result in the score they get.  The light-bulb moment for some students was tangible.

Have them grade themselves.  And not just for fun, but really.  After each grading period, my students either write which standard score they should get and why or which letter grade and why.  This very simple act – it takes about 5 minutes – become the seeds of conversations we need to have next.

Have them do a semester survey.  I continually want to be a better teacher for my students and that means that I need to face some ugly truths; some students are not getting enough help, some students feel I talk too much, some students are still not reading but getting very good at faking it.  How do I know?  I asked them on our end of semester survey and they told me their truths.  

Ask them what they are proud of.  As students came up one-by-one, this was the very first question I asked.  Not what their grade should be, not what their goal is.  But what are they proud of.  Why that?  What else?  Then what are goals?  How can I help best?  How can I support?  I read their survey and we discussed things right then.  Their voices came first, not their score.

Then discuss their grades.  The majority of students had picked the same letter I would, but some had either scored themselves too high or too low.  And while this is always interesting to see,  the bigger truth can be found in why they have picked that letter to define them.  Those simple statements they use to explain their answer; I am not that smart, I don’t understand, I work hard, I can teach others.  All clues to how they see themselves and their own learning.  All clues we can use to change the very essence of the conversation, because the conversation cannot just be about the grade, it needs to be about them.  About more than what they are distilled to on paper.  About how they see themselves, about their strengths, about their needs, about their dreams.

So while I work in a system that still asks me to define students through a score, we can reclaim that very conversation.  We can change the focus of the grade.  We can go deeper, make it more meaningful but we have to take the time to do it.  We have to assure that students have a voice in the process if we ever want it to be meaningful, if we ever want them to care.  We cannot do that through a letter, we cannot even do it through a report card comment.  It is not enough.  This conversation is the very least we can do to make grades about the students again.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

assessment, authentic learning, being a teacher, collaboration, No grades, student choice, Student dreams, student driven, student voice

Ready to Re-Ignite Your Passion? Join the Passionate Learners Book Club

With the bustle of December and all of the year-end blog posts starting to be released, the end of the year is fast approaching.  But with that end also comes an inevitable beginning; a January that calls for re-invention, renewed commitment, and also the energy to try new things.  I do so adore January for all of its passion and courage.

It is therefore that I am pretty excited to share that the first ever official book club for Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students will kick off on January 10th.

Join this private Facebook group for a casual and fun exploration of the book, find a community of your own that is trying some of the ideas, or have already implemented them into their classrooms.  There will be reflective questions, helpful resources, as well as ideas shared in the hopes to make this January the best one yet.

In the book club we will discuss how to

  • Build a working relationship with your students based on mutual trust, respect, and appreciation.
  • Be attentive to your students’ needs and share ownership of the classroom with them.
  • Break out of the vicious cycle of punishment and reward to control student behaviour.
  • Use innovative and creative lesson plans to get your students to become more engaged and intellectually-invested learners, while still meeting your state standards.
  • Limit homework and abandon traditional grading so that your students can make the most of their learning experiences without unnecessary stress.

So if you are looking for a way to re-ignite your passion, to meet new amazing educators, and find great ideas for how to engage and empower your students, join this book club.  There is no commitment once you join, pop in when you can and share when you want.

When:  January 10th – February 7th

Where:  Online via a private, closed Facebook group

Cost:  Free

Click here to join the Passionate Learners book club on Facebook.  You will receive a notification from Facebook once you have been added to the group and you can then start posting.  Please contact me with any questions.  You can get your print or e-book copy of Passionate Learners here.

aha moment, assessment, assumptions, being a teacher, being me, conferences, connect, Passion, student voice

How Can I Make This Better For You?

For the past three days my students have read.  They have sat wherever they wanted, immersed in the book of their choice.  They have book shopped.  They have reflected, but mostly just read.  Whispered about their books.  Handed those in they have finished.  And waited for me to call their name, knowing that soon it would be their turn.

I have sat at a table and spoken to them all, one by one, taken the time it takes.  “How is English going…How can I be a better teacher for you….What is not working…”  Armed with the survey they have takes as we finished our very first quarter, they have told me their truths.  They have looked at me and then gladly told me everything I have needed to change.   And I am so grateful.  Think of the guts that it takes to look at your teacher to tell them that something is not working for you.  Think of what that says about the community we have.

So for the past 3 days, I have listened.  I have nodded and taken notes.  I have asked for further explanation, and I have also asked for help.  How can we make it better?  How can we find more time?  How can we make it easier?  More engaging?  More of what they need?  How can we…

We read books to become better teachers.  We ask colleagues for help.  We meet with administrators.  We reach out to parents.  We connect and we ask and we ponder together.  Yet, how often do we ask the very kids that we teach?  How often do we stop what we are doing simply to conference with them?  Not about their work but to uncover how things are going?  What they need?  How we can change?  How often do we stop so we can learn from them?  Not often enough, but that can change.  It starts with us.  And it starts with a simple question; how can I make this better for you?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.