ORF measures 6th graders less accurate as number of words increases

Schoolkids in classroom. Girl reading task aloud at lesson.Brief oral reading fluency (ORF) measures are the “say Aaah” check-ups of a student’s reading health.

By counting errors in a 1-minute timed reading, educators can quickly identify students who are having difficulties with reading or are at risk of having difficulties. But educators are far more accurate measuring the ORF of 1st-graders than of 6th-graders, who typically read 3x as many words as the 1st-grader, reports a recent study in Preventing School Failure.

As educators do more and more screenings of older children, it’s important to pay close attention to accuracy when detecting and counting errors with older children, the researchers warn.

“The 6th-grade passage appeared to be more difficult for participants to score accurately because the student made a variety of different types of errors (e.g., misidentifications, self-corrections, repetitions, hesitations, omissions),” the researchers write. “In addition, the student read at a faster rate than the 1st-grade student, thus making the task of tracking errors more difficult for participants.”

Only half of the 44 educators in the ORF study correctly classified a 6th-grade reader as at “some risk” for reading difficulties. Preservice teachers were included in the study because teachers commonly use instructional aides, student teachers and volunteers to assist in administering oral fluency measures, the researchers said. Of the 44 educators who participated in the study, 24 were preservice.

“It may be that scoring is an easier task for participants in assessing students with ORF measures when the student is reading at a slower rate and has more consistent errors,” the researchers write.

The oral reading subtest of the Dynamic Indicator of Basic Early Literacy Skills or DIBELS ( R.H. Good & R. A. Kaminski, 2002) for 1st and 6th-grade readers was used for the study. With this measure, a child reads aloud for 1 min from each of 3 parallel passages. The median score of each of the 3 passages is used to determine whether the child is at risk, at some risk or has low risk for reading difficulties based on cutoff points.

For example, a child at the end of 1st grade who scores below the cutoff point of 20 correct words per minute (cwpm) is considered to be at risk. A child who scores below the cutoff point of 40 cwpm is considered to be at some risk and a child who scores at or greater than 40 cwpm is considered at low risk.

Teachers misclassified 6th grader

The actual score of the 1st-grade reader in the study was 46 cwpm. Preservice teachers scored the reader from 44-50 cwpm and other educators scored the reader from 43-51. The ranges did not affect the classification for a 1st-grader with that ORF.

The 6th-grade reader had a score of 124 cwpm. The cutoff point for 6th grade was 125 cwpm. The ranges of scores by the preservice teachers were 116-133 cwpm and 116-173 cwpm by the other educators.

These ranges did overlap the cutoff points for the some-risk and low-risk categories, leading to errors in how students could be classified, the researchers write. As a result, only 54% of preservice teachers and 47% of other educators correctly classified the 6th-grade reader. Among the most common errors made by educators in the ORF assessment were:

Misidentifications. Participants misidentified words such as surely for assuredly or thankfully for gratefully. While the misidentified words often did not change the meaning of the passage, they nevertheless should have been recorded as errors.

Omissions. Often the reader omitted small words (e.g. a, the, an, then). These were difficult for participants to detect and score. Similar-sounding words. Educators had difficulty scoring errors when the reader used a word that sounded similar to the word in the passage (e.g. held for helped, far for for, wet for went)

Timing. Use of a stopwatch can be distracting to both the teacher and the child. Many participants needed practice using the device. Also, ORF measures differ in when timing the child begins. In some cases, timing begins when the student reads the first word of the title, in others the first word of the passage. If possible, the stopwatch should be set for 1 minute and be left to count down automatically, so that the administrator of the test can focus on the student response and not on the timer.

Before testing, educators should review the administration manual. Previewing each reading passage is also helpful. The researchers also recommend practicing with another adult who can provide feedback on any administrative errors and shadow-scoring with another educator. Results should be within 2 points of each other to be reliable, they write. Because ORF measures can have a substantial effect on what kind of reading instruction is provided to students, teachers need to be aware of the challenges of an assessment, regardless of how simple it may appear, they said.

“Oral Reading Fluency: Accuracy of Assessing Errors and Classification of Readers Using a 1-Min Timed Reading Sample,” by Gail Coulter et al., Preventing School Failure, Volume 54, Number 1, 2009.

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