Evaluating students for reading group placement

Kindergarten teacher helping student with reading skillsDespite the trend towards literature-based and whole language programs, the majority of school districts still purchase basal reading series and most primary teachers still separate children into reading groups for at least a portion of their reading instruction.

Evaluating students’ reading ability at the beginning of the year can take weeks and delay the start of reading instruction. Caren Wesson, Paul Haubrich (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), and Janine Vierthaler (Muskego Public Schools, Wisconsin) have studied the validity of a quickly administered curriculum-based method for establishing reading groups.

Curriculum-based measurement

Curriculum-based measurement is a method for determining a student’s current functioning level using passages from the basal reader which the class will use during the year.

Wesson et al. are critical of traditional methods of evaluating students for reading group placement. In addition to being time-consuming, standardized tests are often used to evaluate differences in individual performance on the basis of grade equivalent scores. Such scores are designed for use in comparing large groups of students to their peers or to a standardized sample of the population. Grade equivalent scores exhibit large standard error of measurement and are, therefore, not an accurate measurement for gauging individual achievement. Also, researchers state, reading inventories or standardized tests may not match the skill levels of the reading materials used in the school.

Students read from text

To determine the effectiveness of this curriculum-based measurement strategy, Wesson et al. tested 84 first through fourth graders in a suburban Wisconsin school. Passages of 200 words were randomly selected from the district’s basal series. Three passages, which did not contain any skill lessons, excessive dialogue, indentations or unusual or excessive proper nouns, were then selected from the basal reader at each grade level. Students were tested individually (classmates not overhearing passages being read).

The examiner said, “When I say ‘start’, begin reading aloud at the top of this page. Try to read each word. If you wait too long on a word, I’ll tell you the word. At the end of one minute, I’ll say ‘stop’. Any questions?”

As the child reads the passage, the teacher records errors on an acetate sheet over her copy of the passage. Omissions, substitutions, words supplied by the teacher and mispronunciations are counted as errors (the teacher’s copy is not seen by the child). After 60 seconds, the examiner marks where the student finished.

All three passages that make up the test are administered in succession. If the child finishes a passage before the minute is up, he/she starts again at the beginning of the same passage and continues until the time is up. The total number of words read correctly is tallied for the score. After testing is completed, the examiner totals the three scores of each child and then ranks the scores of the entire class. Children are then divided into reading groups on the basis of these rankings. On the average, testing required 4 1/2 minutes per student.

Faster and just as accurate

Results of curriculum-based measurement confirmed that the reading groups established by this method were almost identical to those established through traditional teacher testing and working with the students during a seven-month period of the school year.

In grades 1-3, results were highly accurate (.001 significance level). At the fourth grade, results were somewhat less significant (.01 level). Approximately 83% of the students tested were accurately placed on the basis of this quick sample of oral reading. For example, in a class of 25 students, 21 were identified as belonging in the same groups in which the teacher had placed them.

For grades 2-4, researchers found that having the students read a single passage was as reliable as having them read all three passages. However, for first grade children, more reliable data was obtained by reading all three passages.

Wesson et al. state that curriculum-based measurement may not be the best method for screening all students. They believe that once groups are established, professional judgment and continuing evaluation are still necessary. Nevertheless, they claim that the use of this method is fully justified because it enables teachers to get reading groups formed and functioning almost immediately upon the start of school.

“The Discriminative Validity of Curriculum-Based Measures for Establishing Reading Groups” Reading Research and Instruction, Fall 1989, Volume 29, No. 1, p. 23-32.

Published in ERN January/February 1990 Volume 3 Number 1

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