States Link Reading Tests to Research

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Both Illinois and Michigan are developing statewide reading tests that will bring their assessments up to date with advances in reading research.

Karen K. Wixson, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan who is helping create that state's examinations, said reading assessments have remained relatively unchanged since the 1920's.

Yet in the past 15 years, she noted, knowledge about reading comprehension has grown rapidly.

In 1984, the report of a national blue-ribbon panel on reading, "Becoming a Nation of Readers,'' summarized the research breakthroughs in the field.

In a foreword to the report, Robert Glaser, president of the National Academy of Education, wrote that "the last two decades of research and scholarship on reading ... have produced an array of information which is unparalleled in its understanding of the underlying processes in the comprehension of language.''

He cautioned, however, that the nationally normed tests used by many states and school districts might not reflect that research.

Gap Between Tests, Theory

According to Sheila Valencia, an assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois who is working on that state's assessments, most existing tests assume that reading consists of a series of discrete skills, which, if learned in sequence, produce a competent reader.

Students are typically given short passages out of context and then asked to answer multiple-choice questions that measure specific skills or subskills, she said.

In contrast, Ms. Valencia noted, recent research suggests that reading is a complex, active process. She argued that readers "construct meaning'' from texts on the basis of their familiarity with and interest in the topic, their purposes for reading, and the various reading strategies they have at hand.

The thrust of Illinois's effort, Ms. Valencia said, is to make reading tests "consistent with good classroom instruction, so that teaching to promote good reading and doing well on these tests become synonymous.''

Ready by 1988, 1989

Researchers at the University of Illinois's center for the study of reading have been working with the Illinois Board of Education for the past two years to develop the new exams.

In Michigan, researchers have been working with state policymakers and educators since 1983 to bring the state's curriculum and testing program into line with the advances in reading theory.

"The project really started with an emphasis on curriculum ... and with changes in the statewide reading objectives,'' Ms. Wixson said of the Michigan effort. "The assessment was a natural consequence of changing those two things.''

She said at least six other states, including California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, have expressed an interest in the new tests.

Both Illinois and Michigan are evaluating sample test items with selected groups of students.

The two states have been working in close cooperation, according to Peggy A. Dutcher, an education-research consultant for the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. "We've been working hand in hand because we're trying not to reinvent the wheel,'' she said. "We both have the same goal.''

Illinois's new reading tests will be given on a statewide basis to students in grades 3, 6, and 8 beginning in the spring of 1988, and to students in grade 10 beginning in the spring of 1990. Michigan will test students in grades 4, 7, and 10 beginning in the fall of 1989.

In Michigan, the new tests will substitute for existing statewide reading assessments. Illinois currently does not have a mandated statewide reading test.

Thus far, Michigan has spent $125,000 to develop the new tests, said Edward B. Roeber, supervisor of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. He said the state would probably spend a total of $150,000.

To date, Illinois has spent $160,000 on the new exams. The state expects to spend $320,000 by the time students are given the test in 1988, including development, piloting, and publishing costs.

New Focus, Questions

Although the tests will still rely primarily on multiple-choice items, their content and format will differ considerably from current reading exams, according to Ms. Dutcher.

Most reading assessments, for example, ask students to answer questions after reading one or two paragraphs out of context. The new exams will include full-length stories and long selections from textbook chapters, complete with illustrations, charts, and graphs.

According to Ms. Wixson, these extended reading passages will permit much more sophisticated questioning of students, providing a gauge for such abilities as making inferences or judgments about what is read.

Unlike earlier tests, which have used items or groups of items to measure specific skills--such as the ability to identify topic sentences--the new exams will concentrate on students' overall understanding of a reading passage.

"The difference is that the items are focusing on the critical concepts and ideas in a text,'' said Ms. Valencia, instead of on the regurgitation of trivial facts and details.

The new tests will also ask students to perform different kinds of tasks. For example, they might be asked to read three or four summaries of a story and select the one they think best. Or they might be asked to select one, two, or three good responses to a particular question, instead of the common "one right answer'' now required by most tests.

Interpretive Help

In addition, many test items will be used to help interpret students' reading performance, but will not contribute to their overall test scores.

Some such questions will measure how much students know about the reading process itself. For instance, students might be asked what the main purposes of the title and subtitles in a given selection are, or whether it would be wiser to reread an entire story or only the first few paragraphs to answer a particular question.

Other questions will measure students' familiarity with a topic before they read about it. Research has indicated that the knowledge readers bring to their reading strongly influences how well they understand what they read.

Self-perceptions and attitudes also influence a reader's comprehension of a given text. Thus, for each reading selection, the Michigan tests will ask students how hard they tried to understand the passage, how well they thought they did on the questions, and how interested they were in the topic.

In Illinois, students will be asked questions about how much they read in general, what they read, and the kinds of activities they engage in while reading and writing.

"We not only want a picture of what the child's reading habits are, but of what sorts of activities the child engages in while reading in school,'' said Eunice A. Greer, a program evaluator with the Illinois Board of Education. Such information, she said, should give teachers and administrators ideas about how to improve their reading programs.

Aligned With Teaching

Michigan policymakers are trying to tie the tests to efforts to help teachers improve their reading instruction for individual students.

The state is developing procedures that will enable schools to keep a "reading portfolio'' for each student. It might include samples of a student's writing, reports of the student's reading activities, and a log of what was read in his or her free time. Test items that would not help improve classroom teaching will be dropped from the exam, according to Ms. Dutcher.

The Illinois tests, at least initially, will not provide diagnostic information about individual students, but will focus instead on school, district, and statewide performance.

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