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Analysis of February 28, 2001 Board Agenda Item Materials
 re: English/Language Arts Assessments Update, K-12


 This analysis was based upon my review of the attachments to the February 28, 2001 Memorandum from Kate Nelson to the Board of Trustees, et al.  The page references commence with the first page of the first attachment identified as Page 1.  My analysis was done according to the order of the packet, rather than from any organizational framework with regard to the assessments. 

I do not profess to have any expertise with regard to English/Language Arts standards or assessments other than what I’ve developed through my extensive reading and research in this area in relation to my efforts to understand my son’s needs.  Some of the points I make, although related to English/Language Arts, are really extraneous to the issue of assessment.  However, they include points I felt compelled to make. 

Also, it is clear that the assessment tools discussed in this packet of materials do not address all the areas in which students are potentially impacted, and in particular do not substantively address reading comprehension issues or writing needs.  These materials also do not seem to identify any of the remediation programs that would be utilized for those students whose needs are not met by the classroom -based instructional services. 

A few additional items are worthy of  mention:

·        The cover memo notes that the attached materials related to the March 7, 2001 board meeting [which was cancelled], however it also notes that the packet contents were not included with board packets circulated to the general public, ostensibly due to their “confidential nature.”  What is “confidential” about the packet’s contents?  Even if it were “confidential,” wouldn’t it be more appropriate for their omission from the general public’s packet to be noted in some fashion?

·        Although the cover memo and many of the references in the packet indicate that the assessments relate to English/Language Arts Assessments for Grades K – 12, the assessment materials actually identified apparently are for use only with Grades K – 5.  This raises some questions:

 - Are any of these assessment tools relevant to or going to be used with students in upper grades?

 - If not, have plans been made to develop assessments and programs for the upper grades? 

 - Although it is clear the focus of this current effort is to “catch them before they fall”, what is being done about those students who haven’t been caught and are continuing to fall?  The recent analysis “Progress and Accountability” regarding the Star 9 and API scores would seem to support the notion that the majority of students in the district with reading difficulties are in Grades 6 and up.  Students in this group are in significant need of attention.  I would be interested in knowing about plans for remediation for these students.

 Information Sheet – Page 1

             The tests referenced on this page are clearly related to measures which are designed to catch children with reading difficulties early, e.g., alphabetics, phonemic awareness and phonics, and some fluency measures.  Although there is a clear need to focus on these areas during the lower grades [K-3], and some of the fluency measures appear to relate to comprehension, it seems that valid measures substantively related to reading comprehension are missing.  

 The Information Sheet itself in the “Measures” column for Graded Passages contains the following statement:

“Note: We are currently researching a new comprehension assessment tool that more accurately reflects the level of our students.”   

The “Graded Passages” test instrument involves silent reading of a passage by the student followed by oral comprehension questions administered by the examiner.  The answers the student provides with this instrument are either correct or incorrect, with an examiner typically having no way of knowing the reason behind an incorrect answer.   It is unclear whether the district’s search for a replacement for the “Graded Passages” testing instrument is to provide more prescriptive information regarding meeting the student’s needs or to possibly re-think their strategy for testing comprehension altogether. 

Furthermore, it is not only the student’s “level” of comprehension, but also the nature of the child’s difficulty with comprehension that needs to be determined to ensure the appropriate method of remediation, i.e.,

  • Is it a function of the child’s lack of comprehension tools or strategies?

  • Is it a lack of vocabulary, perhaps due to an underlying auditory processing deficit?

  • Is it an inability to visualize/verbalize and on that basis understand and retain? 

  • Does the difficulty with comprehension stem from attentional issues?

  • Is it an underlying inability to understand the more conceptual aspects of language, i.e., the failure to “make meaning” of what is read?  

 [I know from personal experience that a child can “decode” and seem to read with relative fluency, thus giving the “appearance” of reading ability, when in reality, because the ability to “make meaning” of what is read is missing, for all the reasons noted above, the child does not have the ability to grasp, understand, retain and make progress.  As a result, the curriculum is meaningless, particularly when it is not modified to the child’s level of understanding, and the child does not make progress (or sometimes even get identified as needing interventions), despite seeming to be a passing reader.]

Although I don’t believe vocabulary is necessarily as critical in the early grades as phonemic awareness and phonics, it is still a significant component of reading and the lack of vocabulary skills can be an important indicator of reading/comprehension difficulties.  I would think that vocabulary should therefore have at least some representation among the testing instruments, particularly in the testing of students in Grades 2 to 5.  With the testing instruments referenced, this does not appear to be the case.

Also, to the extent that upper grades require different testing instruments reflecting more advanced measures, those listed on the “Information Sheet” are more than likely inappropriate for students in Grades 6 and above, given that this assessment packet focuses on instruments for Grades K – 5.

It also seems that no assessment instruments are presently being utilized relative to writing, despite the fact that the assessments are identified as “English/Language Arts” assessments.  [Note: The lack of writing instruments is specifically stated in later sheets regarding “Grade Level Assessment” [Page 4] which indicate “No Assessment” for the section labeled “K through 5: Writing.”

 MBUSD English/Language Arts Assessment Charts – Pages 2-4

 The three sheets following the “Information Sheet” contain three charts identified as follows:

-         MBUSD English/Language Arts Assessments – Kindergarten [class list];

-         MBUSD English/Language Arts Assessments – Third Grade [class list]; 

-         MBUSD English/Language Arts Assessments [individual student score chart for a particular school year.]

 These charts seem to confirm that certain tests are administered only during certain years, specifically related to catching problems early.  Again, these charts reflect no substantive testing for vocabulary, comprehension or writing.  

The first of these three charts “Kindergarten” contains figures which appear to be year-end attainment goals for particular tests, e.g., ORF [Onset Recognition Fluency] at 25/35.  This test in particular seems to have a low standard [66%], while the majority of the tests have goals at 78% and above. 

As well, the “Third Grade” chart contains a column entitled “SAT9 Total Reading Score.”  It should be determined how the scores of those children whose Stanford 9 tests were not standardized due to their failure to answer all questions, as reflected on the analysis entitled “Progress and Accountability” would be factored into this column score. 

Recording Sheet – Page 5

The page “Recording Sheet,” has a column headed “Suggested Teaching Strategies for this Targeted Group.”  Has the range of “suggested teaching strategies” for particular groups been determined?  Since this packet appears to be focused solely on assessment, I am assuming that any discussion of interventions for the students whose assessments indicate they require same will be documented at a later time?  What discussions have taken place in this regard?  Will decisions in this regard be up to each individual classroom teacher?  Will there be input from the elementary site Reading Specialist?  

The column “Suggested Teaching Strategies for this Targeted Group” corresponds to sections of this chart labeled “Top Third,” “Middle Third,” and “Low Third.”   Although this is an easy way to group kids based upon test performance, what does this mean for remediation of their needs?  Those whose scores place them as low performers will not always benefit from the same interventions simply because they are “low performers.”  Teaching strategies must be based upon the needs of the individual child, not with regard to whether they are in the poorest performing or higher performing group. 

  Memo:  What are the District Reading Assessments Telling Us About Our Kids? – Pages 6-7

The page entitled “What are the District Reading Assessments Telling Us About Our Kids?” asks teachers to begin thinking about what support they could ask for to accomplish their classroom reading goals.  Although it is clear that the focus of this assessment packet is on the lower grades where the plan is to “catch them before they fall,” does this mean that addressing the results of the assessments will occur only in the classroom?  It is understood that the first step in this process is to ensure that the instruction in the classroom incorporates best practices in teaching of reading.  However, it must be recognized that there are going to be children whose needs call for intensive remedial interventions in addition to classroom instruction, even at an early age and that that remediation may have to be provided outside the classroom. 

Furthermore, given that any effort to address MBUSD English/Language Arts Assessments must also contemplate the needs of students in Grades 6-12, it must be recognized that there are going to be many children in need of services of greater intensity than those provided in the classroom during those grades.  [This fact has been demonstrated in regards to the numbers of students in the upper grades who were identified in the “Progress and Accountability” document as needing remediation.]  Unfortunately, far too many parents of students in middle and high school, when asking for reading interventions for their children who have fallen behind, are told “We don’t teach reading in the upper grades” even though the child needs the intervention.  [1]

Talking Points – ESS Pull-out Meetings – Page 8

            The next page includes “talking points” regarding the purpose of assessments in a standards-based system.  The “Outcome” is to “Understand the importance of the assessments.”  Although this may have been the desired outcome with regard to these particular meetings, it seems that the real outcome should be to find out what the tests are saying about the needs of a particular child.  As a parent of a student, I found it particularly interesting that the talking points identified the “purposes” of the assessment process for all the stakeholders, e.g., the teacher, the site administrator, and the district, yet failed to mention the purpose of the assessment process for the student.   

             Under “Purposes for the Teacher”, one of the purposes identified is to help “Design the remediation programs.”  However, if there is no comprehension or writing assessments undertaken, what kind of remediation programs can be designed for these areas? 

             Under “Purposes for the District” it notes they are to ensure by the end of 3rd grade that all reading components are in place, that by the end of 3rd grade, students are “learning to read” and by the end of 4th and 5th grade students are “reading to learn.”  Again, given that there are no real assessments related to reading comprehension, it may be difficult to guarantee that this goal can be achieved or that those doing the assessing will have any real idea whether or not a student is achieving or can achieve this goal. 

 January 3, 2001 Memo – [Pages 9-13]

             The January 3, 2001 memo makes it clear that the entire assessment process, while a very welcome first step, is still a work in progress.  This memo continues the focus on Grades K-5, without any indication of what is being done for those students whom we already know need help.  [Parents whose children are at the middle school or above are still being told that the district doesn’t have programs or services to help their child’s reading or language needs, and that there are NO assessments that can be done on a regular enough basis to help determine progress or lack thereof.  This violates two fundamental tenets of special education law: 1) that the program be designed to meet the individual needs of the child [34 C.F.R. Sect. 300.552]; and 2) that parents of students not presently qualified for special education be given access to information related to assessment for their child, as well as assessment itself. [Cal. Ed. Code Sections 56029, 56301, 56302,  56321(a)] 

             The first attachment to this memo includes “Testing Windows” for Winter: January 29, 2001 – February 9, 2001 [class score sheets due 02/13/01] and Spring “June 4, 2001 – June 15, 2001” [class score sheets due 06/19/01].    These are different dates than those referenced on Page 4 of the attachments, which called for completed testing as follows: Fall: 10/20/00; Winter: 03/23/01; and Spring: 06/15/01.   Also, how will programs be determined for the summer if the testing is done so late in the year?

             Again, writing and reading comprehension components have been eliminated.  However, it also appears that the test selection has been altered from the earlier documents in the packet, in terms of what tests are used with what grades, specifically with regard to Kindergarten and 1st Grade and with regard to the BPST [Beginning Phonics Skills Test], and the Fluency Rate.  The chart contains a note that the Kindergarten assessments would be determined after a 01/26/01 meeting with Dr. Kevin Feldman.   Has this occurred?

             At Page 2 of the 01/03/01 memo, under “Issues/Concerns and Responses” in addition to concerns about assessment measures, there is also mention of “Open Court, Rewards, PALS,” all of which appear to be reading programs.  Based on subsequent references in this packet, these are not all the reading programs being used.  Given that this packet is mostly focused on assessment, and early intervention through class-based programs, rather than remediation based upon those assessments, has there been any additional analysis or planning for the remediation of more affected children?

             Also at Page 2 of the 01/03/01 memo, there is a reference to a series of workshops, via South Bay Adult School, designed to inform parents about the new math and language arts programs.  Although I have seen information about math presentations in school communications, I have not seen anything about a language arts presentation.  There is also a statement “Develop strategies for the high performing students.”  What does this refer to?  It would seem from comments on the prior pages that “high performing students” would test out of this assessment process.  Is this a general question regarding how the needs of these students will be addressed in the classroom-based programs?

             Page 2 of the 01/03/01 memo also reflects the comment made by teachers: “When is it appropriate to recommend students for remediation or retention?”  I was unclear whether this was a timing question or a criteria question.  The response provided doesn’t really seem to clarify which of the two it is.  If it is a timing issue, then I would not be concerned.  However, I would be concerned if this question was an indication that teachers are not aware or fully informed about the criteria for the promotion and retention of students. 

 Also, given that the district’s current policy for promotion and retention really does not take into consideration the State of California guidelines for the promotion and retention of children with special needs, this should be an added concern.  I can state from personal knowledge that front line teachers have not been adequately informed of the criteria for promotion and retention nor does it seem that all administrators fully understand it.  It therefore goes without saying that the majority of parents are uninformed about it as well. 

The comment regarding coordinating more effectively with special education is a positive sign from classroom teachers that the district should respect and support.  Many of the issues older special education students have relate to their not having been given adequate access to the reading curriculum their typical peers routinely received.  This is a great step forward in ameliorating the effects of this lack of access.  There is also a reference to “elementary site reading specialists.”   A related question is why is there no site reading specialist for the middle school? 

With regard to how assessment should affect instruction, it would seem to me that it should guide it both generally in terms of program selection and specifically with regard to addressing the needs of each individual student.   The interventions are only going to be effective, if the assessments that are done clearly define the problem that needs to be addressed.  To the extent that programs selected are research-based programs which will benefit all children (e.g., provide direct, systematic instruction in phonetics, phonics, etc.), this will be a positive start.  However, if the assessments do not adequately or correctly determine the needs of individual children, so that they can get the instructional services they require, we run the risk that even with high-quality classroom-based instruction, we will end up in the exact same position we are now, with students whose needs are not being met who still get passed from grade to grade. 

At the end of this memo, there is the statement that this is a work in progress and that “professionals” say it will take up to five years to solidify the process.  As I stated previously, we already know that there are many children in Grades 6 and up who are in dire need of reading and language assistance.  Many of these students don’t have five years.  These are children who are struggling because:  

·        They were taught using the “whole language” approach;

·        They haven’t benefited from class size reduction;  

·        They have not benefited from the recent trend toward intensive and remedial interventions; 

·        The lack of remedial interventions has exacerbated their reading difficulties, because they have passed the “window of opportunity,” years when language is more easily acquired by a child; they are entering an age when compliance is complicated by behavioral issues associated with adolescence; they are suffering from low self-esteem related to their lack of performance as compared to the progress being made by their peers without reading difficulties. 

The Testing Windows chart attached to the memo indicates that the “Graded Passages” assessment has been eliminated for the testing windows indicated.  As a result, there is no test determining comprehension for this year.  As noted above, children can test fine in basic reading, when in fact they are not comprehending, understanding, retaining or learning.  The next attachment entitled “Student Progress Toward Year-end Results” includes the “essential benchmarks” for English/Language Arts and allows teachers to chart the progress of students in their class.  This is not a needs-based view, except as a general snapshot of class/school/grade progress and appears to be more an accountability measure than an assessment tool.

Observation Opportunities – [Page 14]

            This document [which contains the statement “A picutre [sic] is worth a thousand words!] refers to the reading programs PALS, Saxon, Rewards, Words their Way and Open Court.  What is the full array of programs under consideration?

            Again, the focus appears to be on grades K – 5, as reflected by the list of teachers and school sites, indicating the focus is solely elementary. 

12/06/00 Memo, D. Hofreiter, Reading Specialist to MC Teachers [Page 15]

            Both this document and the preceding list of teachers at various school sites, make it clear that there are Reading Specialists at the elementary and high school sites.  However, no Reading Specialist is available to address the needs of the students at the middle school nor is there any referral form for children in need.  I know from first-hand experience that this is a current problem at the middle school. 

            Interestingly, this memo confirms the findings of the “Progress and Accountability” report with regard to the need for reading assistance among high school students.  Ms. Hofreiter’s statement “To be fair to the student and parents, they need to be made aware of your concerns” as well as her acknowledgement of the need for parent permission prior to testing, are positive demonstrations of the need for parent and student involvement in the remedial process.  The only concern I have with regard to the referral form is whether high school teachers can routinely distinguish when a student’s problem is in fact a reading, writing or study skills issue. 


            The contents of this packet reflect the district’s attention to the need to apply research-based early intervention in the area of reading and language through classroom-based programs designed to help the majority of children during the early elementary years.  Such intervention, which will include children who receive special education services, should make a significant difference in resolving the long-term reading needs of MBUSD students who, in the past, may have been passed from grade to grade without receiving the help they require. 

Also, although the efforts toward ensuring direct and systematic instruction in phonetics and phonics will go a long way toward addressing what historically has been a problem for many of our older readers with reading difficulties, it is my concern that the lack of substantive measures of both vocabulary and reading comprehension will hamper our efforts to identify those children who have acquired the mechanics of reading, but whose seeming ability to read masks an underlying difficulty with making meaning of what they read.  Although these children have technically learned to read, they cannot effectively “read to learn” and as such will have greater difficulty as they progress through their schooling.   This is especially true in light of testing instruments that don’t tell us the “why” of a child’s inability to answer questions correctly. 

Although the interventions proposed are a good start, especially for those students in the early elementary grades, unfortunately such interventions will do nothing to address the current and critical needs of students in Grades 6 and above who have not received the benefits of the many new and innovative teaching methods related to reading and language.  In particular, the needs of students who are at a crisis state must be addressed, and soon.

Submitted by:


Deborah Blair Porter

March 12, 2001  

[1] It should be noted that the California Reading Initiative, especially as it relates to children who receive special education services, specifically recommends “a minimum of two and one-half hours of instructional time daily for reading/language arts in the primary grades, a minimum of two and one-half hours in grades four through eight, and a minimum of one course per semester of English-language arts instruction in grades nine through twelve.  However, to make substantial progress in reading, students with reading difficulties may need at least three or more hours daily of well-designed instruction regardless of grade level.” (emphasis added)


Copyright © 2001  ASK 
All rights reserved.
Revised: January 25, 2002

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