Literacies Circle: Measuring Literacy

Some pediatricians are advising against assessing for learning difficulties, such as learning disabilities, dyslexia, or attention deficit disorders, during the pandemic in light of disrupted routines, virtual learning, and trauma. At the same time, there is increasing fervor for making schools more humane, especially as we return to face-to-face schools. Many of us would like to go back to “normal” soon, but we must realize that the “normal” before wasn’t working for some of us too. While many children miss being at school with their peers, there are children who had struggled within the school walls who are now much happier learning from home or in smaller pods. Learning takes on many forms and it doesn’t simply stop just because of missing months of face-to-face schooling.

The purposes of assessments—both on an individualized and state/national level—are being deeply questioned, especially when it comes to “learning loss.” An excellent topic for reflection in a literacies circle.   

What are the purposes of assessments? What are the consequences?

What is the purpose of a particular assessment, such as a test comprising of nonsensically-spelled words to measure reading? Or a state standardized test?

How do we define an error? Are repetitions and self-corrections in reading considered errors? Writing and then later editing is an error? Is the act of checking a picture or reading ahead to determine a definition an error? Is it an error when a response is not given within a specified time frame? Or the number of words read per minute?

How is a hierarchy of levels decided? What are the cutoffs between scores for benchmark or grade levels or categories like not proficient, proficient, or advanced

Very few of us, possibly no one, likes pop quizzes. How do we get psyched for tests? How do we study for a test?

How is an assessment a reflection of the assessment itself? Was it a fair test? What about biases? What is the underlying theory of reading or writing is it based on?

Who has the power to decide what items go on assessments? And how are the items scored? Teachers? Statisticians? Researchers? Or politicians? And what are their cultural and linguistic backgrounds?

And for what populations? (Ibram X. Kendi remarked that the use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds, reinforcing the oldest racist idea: Black intellectual inferiority and perpetuation of achievement gaps.)  

How is an assessment or a set of assessments a reflection of timing, such as during the pandemic or in the wee hours of the morning (especially for a teenager) or right before lunch? What about the environment? In school? At home? On a computer? With a hovering parent? In an office with a stranger?

Why do some assessment scores suddenly drop? Was the score reflective of the observed ability (such as a fifth grader usually reading close to target, but scored a recent test on a first-grade level)? Was the child sick? Cold? Tired? Did the child just blow through it? Did the child wise up to the algorithm? Were the questions “stupid” and the child annoyed? Was there a technical error in scoring?

What happens after a completion of a battery of assessments? What are the resulting labels that are used to identify readers and writers? Struggling? Unmotivated? At-risk? Tier 2? Tier 3? Special education student? Disadvantaged? “Can’t read” or “Non-reader?” Level H? or Level M? Disabled? Reading disordered? Dyslexic?

Are the deficit-termed labels helpful? Or disparaging? marginalizing?

Does the intervention or remediation improve just the test score itself, or the whole gamut of reading and writing abilities?

What about the use of feedback? How do we listen to children’s explanation of their reading and writing processes? How do we support them when they get stuck?

And most of all, as we work toward restorative literacies, what are some of the ways we can we see success in children’s development of and practices in literacies without the use of formal assessments?

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