The best screen for 6th-8th grade readers is most obvious one

iStock_000019142594XSmallWhat is the best way to screen grade 6-8 students to find out who is most at risk of failing high-stakes reading assessments?

Is it an oral reading fluency (ORF) measure that is similar to the measures that have been shown to be effective in assessing reading competence in elementary school?

And what about silent fluency reading measures? Do they work in the same way as ORF measures?

The answer proves to be all too obvious. After testing 1,421 middle school students with 10 reading measures ( 3 comprehension, 3 silent reading fluency, 3 oral reading fluency and 1 vocabulary) a team of Texas researchers says look no further than last year’s high-stakes assessment test. The best way to identify students who are at risk for failing the next state test is to look at those who performed poorly on the last state test.

While this may make you feel sheepish, on the positive side, this means you don’t need to devote resources to an additional screening measure, according to the team of researchers led by Carolyn Denton at the Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. “

Based on our findings, educators of middle school students may be best able to identify students at risk for failing state high-stakes reading comprehension tests by examining students’ performance on these tests during the previous school year,” they write in a recent issue of Scientific Studies of Reading.

“The use of these assessments would need to be evaluated in each different state, but the advantage in terms of reducing the need for additional assessment of all students in middle schools is significant.”

Reading fluency and other measures should be used for diagnostic purposes and to monitor progress, although more research will be needed to validate this, writes the team.

The study also has implications for instruction. Some educators are providing fluency instruction to middle schoolers on the basis of research that suggests fluency impacts reading comprehension. But this study found that this is not necessarily valid at grades 6-8 when the relation between fluency and comprehension is weaker than observed with young children, the researchers write.

“Older students with reading comprehension difficulties are likely to need interventions that directly address vocabulary, word knowledge, and comprehension processes,” the study says. “Rather than addressing only decoding and fluency, it is likely that interventions for secondary-levels students who struggle with reading comprehension must include extensive, explicit instruction in making meaning from text.”

While the study found a significant relationship between ORF and comprehension for grades 6-8, that relationship is weaker than it is for grade 1-4 children. Additionally, ORF measured in connected text is more closely related to reading comprehension for grades 6-8 students than ORF measured in word lists. For elementary students, ORF in word lists is more related to comprehension.

ORF is most often measured by timing a student reading one or more passages orally for 1 to 2 min, counting the total number of words read during that time period, subtracting error words, and calculating the number of words read correctly per minute. This can be a time-consuming process when screening a large number of children.

Another bit of good news from this study is that group-administered silent reading sentence verification tests are a viable alternative to individually administered ORF measures for predicting comprehension. Of the silent reading measures used in this study, TOSREC (Wagner et al., 2010), was the most strongly related to comprehension, the researchers write.

TOSREC is a 3-minute, group-based sentence verification task in which students read sentences and indicate whether they are true or false. The items are designed so that if the sentences are read correctly, they can be identified as true or false using general world knowledge (e.g. All birds are blue), the study says.

Maze or cloze tests in which students are asked to supply a missing word in the text, typically from 3 word choices, are weakly correlated with reading comprehension, according to this study.

High cut scores recommended

All of the fluency measures in the study could be classified as “fair” predictors of student performance on the Texas state assessment, the researchers write. However, to maintain sensitivity levels of 90% or higher, very high cut scores must be adopted. The researchers recommend a cut score of the 50th percentile to limit both false positives and false negatives.

When ORF is used to diagnose a student’s difficulties with reading, the researchers provide the following guidelines from their study to target interventions:

  • Students with decoding, oral reading fluency and reading comprehension difficulties performed approximately 2.5 SDs below students with only comprehension difficulties on ORF curriculum-based measures
  • Students with primarily reading fluency and comprehension difficulties but stronger decoding perform approximately .5 SDs below students with only comprehension difficulties on the same measure.

Participants in the study were 1,421 ethnically diverse 6th, 7th and 8th-grade students from 7 middle schools in the southwestern U.S. The ethnic make-up was 38% Hispanic, 39% African American, 19% Caucasian and 4% Asian and other.

About 54% of the students were struggling readers, defined as students who failed the state reading achievement test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS).

“The Relations Among Oral and Silent Reading Fluency and Comprehension in Middle School: Implications for Identification and Instruction of Students With Reading Difficulties,” by Carolyn Denton et al., Scientific Studies of Reading, 2011, Volume 15, Number 2, pps. 109-135.

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