Every few years, we are inundated with headlines on U.S. students' progress toward proficiency in math and literacy. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, provides insight on where we currently stand in relation to this progress. Unfortunately, for far too long, the percentage of students performing at or above proficient on the NAEP reading assessment has remained appallingly low, with only 35% of Grade 4 students and 34% of Grade 8 students scoring proficient or higher in 2019. Although these results offer us some insights into the state of literacy across the nation, it is a broad stroke to say the least.
Fortunately, there are many available assessments that can help teachers measure comprehension, as well as guide instruction. To fully understand the reading comprehension level of your students, it is recommended that teachers use various types of assessments, as each provides a unique view of your students (Hougen & Smartt, 2012). It is important to note that each assessment type has a purpose and limitation, and because of the finite amount of instructional time, teachers must be judicious in deciding which assessments to administer.
For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on three popular types of assessment: diagnostic, formative, and summative. Assessments are often defined as much by their function as their form. We will briefly discuss some distinguishing features of each, highlighting what they can do, and just as importantly, what they cannot do. We will then discuss how this assessment system can be incorporated into a classroom setting where the balance between ideals must be weighed against the practical constraints of the classroom dynamic.
Why Assessment of Comprehension Is Important
Some may wonder why we need to assess reading comprehension in the first place. Most teachers will tell you their students differ in terms of their experiences, interests, and levels of accomplishment. By assessing students throughout the school year, teachers develop a better understanding of their students, including their strengths and areas for improvement.
Before delving further into the assessment of comprehension, it is important to define reading comprehension. Gough and Tunmer’s (1986) Simple View of Reading is a prominent theory of reading development, which contends that students become readers when they can marshal the skills to decode words while simultaneously drawing on their knowledge of language for reading comprehension.
Building on the Simple View of Reading, Cain (2013) offers the following insight: “Skilled comprehenders recognize the individual words on the page and readily access their meaning. The strings of words form meaningful sentences, and skilled comprehenders identify the connections between them and integrate their meanings.... good memory adds the integration process...[and] skilled comprehenders are also sensitive to context... [it is important to note] these processes do not occur sequentially, but in parallel. Thus, comprehension is a dynamic process” (pp. 54–55).
A Look at Types of Reading Assessments
Teachers searching for reading comprehension assessment strategies will quickly discover a multitude of options. But before we share strategies, let's take a look at three popular types of reading comprehension assessments: diagnostic, formative, and summative. As we examine these assessment types, you will see how they vary with respect to delivery timing, frequency, instructional influence, content coverage, and quantitative rigor.
Diagnostic assessments are typically delivered before instruction takes place. This timing is due to the assessment’s function, which is to identify gaps in prerequisite knowledge that can impede student progress toward grade-level learning objectives. Information obtained from these assessments can be used to develop an instructional plan that can address student needs and bring them up to grade level as quickly as possible.
Reflecting back on the Simple View of Reading, we are reminded that skilled reading comprehension is dependent on students’ ability to fluently decode at the word level, as well as to fluently read connected text. Students struggling in these areas typically need to be administered specific diagnostic assessments by the teacher or a reading specialist. Diagnostic reading assessments are designed to examine specific foundational skills in order to determine the root cause of the students’ needs.
Formative reading comprehension assessments are considered the most informal type of assessment. In fact, if done well, most students do not even realize they are being assessed. Formative assessment is often characterized as the assessment for learning as opposed to an assessment of learning because of its intimate association with instruction. The focus here is on capturing student understanding often (daily) and in real time so misconceptions can be uncovered and corrective solutions can be brought to bear in a timely manner.
Formative reading comprehension assessments are often embedded in reading instruction and can take on many forms, such as encouraging students to retell what they read, engaging in discussions about the text, responding verbally or in writing to text-specific prompts, or completing short multiple-choice quizzes related to the assigned reading. Although these assessments do not cover significant areas of the curriculum on any given day and are not typically subject to formal scoring and reliability metrics often attributed to more formal assessments, they are invaluable for fostering learning in the classroom.
Summative reading comprehension assessments are given less frequently, but will typically cover more content. Examples of these assessments can be end-of-unit tests, interim or benchmark assessments, and state assessments. Even though they may be used less frequently, they can still offer valuable insights into making instructional decisions.
Summative assessments are often administered at multiple times throughout the year, and can be used to measure student progress toward proficiency on end-of-year learning goals. Because these assessments are typically longer and formally scored, they offer teachers quantitative information and a greater level of reliability. They can also offer some limited insights into actionable placement and instruction.
How to Assess Reading Comprehension
If you think that’s a lot of assessment, you’re not alone. Teachers often worry about how to fit all this testing into their already busy classrooms and what impact it will have on learning activities. Fortunately, most of the assessments that teachers should be engaging in are relatively seamless and should be designed to feel like a part of the instruction, as opposed to an activity that pulls a student out of a lesson.
Here are five quick and simple ways to assess reading comprehension that can be seamlessly incorporated into a lesson.
1. Make Connections
Students can demonstrate understanding by making a text-to-text, text-to-self, or text-to-world connection. Use this strategy at the beginning, middle, or end of a text.
Text-to-Text: A connection between the text students are currently reading and one they have already finished.
Text-to-Self: A connection between the text and the students’ life experience.
Text-to-World: A connection between the text and events that are happening in the world.
2. Do a Think-Pair-Share
Here’s how to use this strategy in the classroom:
- Pose a question about the text and give students time to “think” about it independently.
- Next, have students “pair” up to discuss the question.
- Finally, have students “share” their thinking with their partner.
3. Summarize the Story
Graphic organizers are great tools for helping students to summarize a text. They provide a quick way for teachers to assess what students know about the text they’re reading. Have students complete a story map for fictional texts or a 5Ws organizer for current-events articles and nonfiction texts.
4. Draw the Story
Strong readers can visualize what they read, and the mental images help them to make meaning of the text. Have students read a story passage to themselves and draw a picture of the images that come to them as they read. Finally, have them write at least two sentences that explain their drawings.
5. Make Predictions
In order to make good predictions, students must have a good understanding of the text. Test how well students understand the characters they're reading about by asking questions at a pivotal moment in the plot, when a character must make a decision or take action. Ask: What choice do you think the character will make? What about the character's previous actions leads you to that conclusion?
The Right Assessment at the Right Time
When an instructional program is constructed with assessment in mind, the tasks can be embedded into the lesson allowing for a greater contextualized experience. Programs, like HMH’s Into Reading for example, provide a variety of curriculum-embedded assessment opportunities that are formative, summative, and performance-based. Longer-term collaborative assessments, such as a research project, may also be used to build upon and synthesize previously learned skills. Teachers are afforded the flexibility to incorporate these assessments into their instruction or modify based on their needs.
When afforded a greater variety of assessment options an additional challenge becomes choosing the right assessment at the right time. Since no single assessment can provide us all the answers and different assessments have different purposes, it is best to view student performance across a portfolio of assessment opportunities and modalities.
Based on my hypothetical response to these questions, I would select an interim summative assessment like HMH Reading Growth Measure. This process can be repeated in different situations, leading to other assessment solutions.
Final Thoughts on Assessing Comprehension
Assessing reading comprehension does not have to be a one and done process where the assessment experience seems external to the instructional environment. Assessment can and should take many forms in order to provide unique insights into each student’s comprehension.
Assessing students’ skills and knowledge and interpreting the results is not easy. It requires significant knowledge of the domain and the processes behind learning. Fortunately, there are comprehensive and connected reading programs and supplemental resources that can alleviate some of this burden from teachers—where assessment is tied directly to instruction and data insights and resources are readily available.
Cain, K. (2013). Reading comprehension difficulties in struggling readers. In B. Miller, L. E. Cutting, & P. McCardle (Eds.), Unraveling reading comprehension: Behavioral, neurobiological, and genetic components (pp. 54–65). Pual H. Brookes Publishing.
Gough, P., & Tunmer, W. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.
Hougen, M. C., & Smartt, S. M. (Eds) (2012). The fundamentals of literacy instruction and assessment. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.
U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1992–2019 Reading Assessments.
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