How Florida assesses 3-12 reading with statewide system

iStock_000025474831XSmallThree tests are at the core of the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading (FAIR),  for students in grades 3-12. In these grades, the students self-administer the adaptive, computer-based tests.

Here is a brief description of each of the 3 core tests for grades 3-12:

The Broad Screen/Progress Monitoring Tool. This computer-adaptive reading comprehension test gives educators an estimate of the probability that a student will perform at grade level on the state assessment, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

The test consists of reading passages and questions about the passages that mimic FCAT. Students take the broad screen on their own 3 times each year, in the early fall, December and May. Students in grades 3-10 take the state assessment every March. (In May, data can be used for placement purposes).

The Maze Task, a cloze-item task, assesses basic comprehension by asking students to select which of 3 words best completes cloze items in 2 reading passages. Students with a less than 85% chance of scoring at grade level in the FCAT take the Maze Task and the Word Analysis Task to provide teachers with information about what kind of instruction or intervention the student needs.

The Word Analysis Task is a computer -based spelling test that assesses students’ phonological, orthographic, or morphological knowledge. Students spell words they hear on their computers. To develop the task, FAIR examined curriculum standards of states that included spelling in their standards and identified grade-level spelling patterns and words representing those patterns.

Adaptive nature of testing

The adaptive nature of the testing is one of the system’s most valuable features, says Barbara Foorman, PhD, director of the Florida Center for Reading Research. Benchmark testing is worrisome because results can be misleading and hard to interpret leading to misinstruction, she says. With FAIR, students are tested with words and passages they are able to read no matter what their grade levels.

The 3 tests at the core of FAIR for grades 3-12 guide educators in instructional decision-making for students who have a less than 85% probability of passing the FCAT.

The tests help educators determine if a student is having difficulties with fundamental reading skills and basic comprehension, or with the higher-level vocabulary, reading strategies and thinking/reasoning skills that are needed to meet grade-level standards in literacy.

Diagnostic testing

Students who score below the 30th percentile in the Maze Task and the Word Analysis Task take informal assessments in the Informal Diagnostic Toolkit so that teachers can pinpoint the most appropriate interventions. The toolkit of informal assessments includes:

  • a phonics screening inventory
  • an academic word inventory
  • Lexiled passages to be read silently or orally for comprehension
  • scaffolded discussion templates of reading passages.

In the latter assessment, question-response templates for reading passages help teachers explore students’ comprehension errors and scaffolded understanding.

Reading skills vs. comprehension

Students in grades 6-12 who score above the 30th percentile on the Maze Test and the Word Analysis Test are considered to have adequate basic reading skills. Those students are need or benefit from interventions focused on higher level reading skills, perhaps in the context of their content classes.

The Broad Screen/Progress Monitoring Tool that students take 3 times each year also gives educators data about a student’s strengths and weaknesses in 4 cluster areas (words and phrases in context; main idea, plot and author’s purpose; comparison and cause/effect; and reference and research). These skills also are assessed by FCAT. Educators can use information about the 4 cluster areas to analyze students’ needs in reading instruction and support.

Cloze-item test too simple

Foorman says the state is working on refining the cloze-item test to make the word choices, now fairly simple, more difficult. The goal was to keep the word choice relatively easy and obvious so that the Maze Task provided a measure of basic efficiency, fluency and comprehension rather than complex thinking and extended vocabulary.

But Foorman says that beyond 5th grade, they were not finding much growth with this measure. Currently, every 7th word requires the student to make a word choice. The test is being refined so that the word choice is more sentence- based and requires more semantic integration, she says.

Spelling was chosen as an assessment method because it lends itself well to computer-based testing and because research has shown that students’ ability to spell words in a free-response format is strongly related to their ability to read. The correlation is quite high for middle school and high school, says Foorman, who adds that there is also a correlation for writing. Students avoid using words they can’t spell, which compromises their writing.

To develop the Word Analysis Task, FAIR staff examined the curriculum standards of states that included spelling in their standards. The following states’ spelling/reading standards were reviewed as part of this process: Florida, California, Washington, Virginia, Texas, New York, and Massachusetts.

From 6th grade through high school, the majority of spelling standards focused on roots and affixes. Because of a lack of consensus on the roots and affixes that should be taught and when, FAIR decided to use words with roots and affixes that appear frequently in print.

As well as state spelling standards, FAIR staff also reviewed the most frequently used core reading programs in the state, supplemental and intervention reading and spelling programs and previous research findings on spelling development and assessment.

Foorman says that with FAIR teachers get a list of the students’ misspellings and data about what a student’s misspellings indicate in terms of appropriate interventions.

What is grade level

One of the challenges for FAIR and for many educators, says Foorman, is determining the grade level of a reading passage. Evaluating the readability of a passage for each grade is a difficult thing to do, and to a certain degree it will be a subjective process. Microsoft Word’s Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is as good a tool as any, she says. Teachers should trust their judgment in evaluating the linguistic and cognitive demand of passages for their grade levels, she says.

FAIR assessment data is stored in Florida’s Progress Monitoring and Reporting Network (PMRN), which is a statewide web-based system that provides reports of student progress at the individual student, classroom, school, district and state level. The information is immediately and constantly available to educators.

“There’s a dearth of good assessment data in middle school, says Barbara Elzie, the deputy director of Just Read, Florida!.

Implementation problems

While FAIR is still working through implementation issues such as system overloads, which caused the website where educators enter test data to crash several times, Elzie says there’s been an overwhelming response from middle and secondary school teachers who say they have never before had such good data on their students.

Elzie expects Florida to increasingly abandon paper-and-pencil tests in favor of FAIR, potentially saving the state millions of dollars in the future.

According to state specifications, the recommended student-to-computer ratio is 4:1. Testing can be done in computer labs and also on laptops that are wheeled from classroom to classroom on carts. Students must have headphones and a mouse to take the 3-12 assessments.

Progress monitoring.

Any of the FAIR tests can be used for monitoring as well as for screening diagnosis. Students can take the Maze Task and Word Analysis Task as frequently as every 20 instructional days. In grades 3-5 teachers can monitor growth in basic reading skills using Oral Reading Fluency rather than the Maze Task. FAIR recommends setting the target at 40th rather than 30th percentile for oral reading. A modified version of the broad screening tool also is available for monitoring comprehension every 20 instructional days.

For students who need help with higher level reading skills in content classes, the state is providing professional development to content teachers that focuses on building students’ reading skills within the context of the content area. So, for example, Foorman says, for history teachers, building reading skills would occur in the context of questioning the credibility of sources. For science teachers, it would occur in the context of examining the soundness of arguments.

Florida content teachers receive stipends to attend the 2-week professional development workshops in the summer and also receive points toward applying for their teaching recertification.

“Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading Technical Manual 2009-2010 Edition Grades 3-12,” State of Florida Department of Education, 2009.

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