Testing for Text:
How to Use Assessment Data to Select Student Reading Materials
by Larry Kleiber, Ph.D.
Director of Instructional Support and Program Evaluation • Brush Public Schools, Brush, Colorado
MultiMedia Schools  • May/June 2002 
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Most people would say the most critical task in education is teaching students how to read fluently. Since the best way to gain and practice this skill is to read more, the challenge then lies in selecting the right book for the right student at the right time.

That was the challenge we were determined to meet when we implemented a new reading-materials selection system at Brush Middle school, located in the rural, northeast plains of Colorado.

Serving 360 youngsters in grades six to eight, teachers at the school are in the midst of a district-wide, systemic staff development initiative that is focused on using student assessment data to effectively guide, inform, and influence classroom planning and instruction. We decided that implementing a better way to select appropriate reading materials should be part of that initiative.

As in most states around the country, students in Colorado are required to be assessed in reading, writing, math, and science at various points throughout their tenure in the public schools. While good, assessments typically used for this purpose are limited in how much information can help teachers truly understand an individual student's progress and need. To fill the gap, to provide a more comprehensive look at student achievement, and to meet our reading goals, we added a levels testing program developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA).

Test Scores Lead to Text Selection
Brush teachers worked directly with this Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit organization to design a paper and pencil assessment system that correlated with our local content standards. The tests are an excellent supplement to our state tests, providing detailed information on individual student growth. The tests also are the key component to our new reading materials selection system

Detailed scoring information from the reading tests shows us student growth in areas such as word meaning, literal comprehension, or literary expression. With this data we can see where each student may need help. Because NWEA test scores are directly linked to the Lexile Framework, a specialized scale developed by the educational research and development firm MetaMetrics, Inc. that matches readers with appropriately challenging texts, we can also use the data to see what reading materials will be best suited for each student's level.

There are many similarities between the NWEA tests and MetaMetrics' Lexile scale, both of which were developed after years of research. But perhaps the most important similarity is that both organizations use single-scale systems that are not dependent on grade level or age. This means the test scores correlate with reading scale scores, regardless of what grade the student is in or what school the student attends.

Framework Identifies Challenging Materials
To become accomplished readers, students must be repeatedly exposed to more difficult words in context. Together, the test and the scale help us to locate the level at which a student is being challenged and exposed to new vocabulary and concepts without being frustrated.

"Teachers welcome a method that consistently matches books with student comprehension levels," said Amy Ely, literacy coach for the Brush Middle School. "Before we knew about the Lexile Framework, matching students to books for readability and comprehension was based on several inconsistent sources, or even guesswork, to a certain degree."

The system uses the same scale both for readers and for texts. It provides a common measure, making it easy to coordinate resources (such as basal or reading textbooks, library materials, reading collections or series) that have their own scales. Acting as the direct link between known student reading ability and text in general, it provides our teachers with a much clearer understanding of the potential effectiveness of teacher-assigned reading material, including readability, challenge, and difficulty. The scale also provides a firm understanding of the difficulty level of other important classroom resources such as almanacs, newspapers, periodicals, or encyclopedias.

By adding the scale data to our assessment portfolios, we can now relate an NWEA reading test score to the actual difficulty of books. Teachers can challenge students by exposing them to books with new vocabulary and concepts without frustrating them, to promote maximum development.

How We Began
Staff development was a major component of the process of introducing this new system into our teacher's tool kit. We began simply, introducing the concept to our administrators and classroom teachers who were already using NWEA's tests. Following this brief theoretical introduction, we invited them to explore and use resources at the Lexile Web site [http://www.Lexile.com]. There, teachers could instantly obtain scores for any text they chose. Teacher curiosity was definitely piqued.

The more staff experimented with the system, the more ideas they got for using it. Teachers researched the difficulty levels of textbooks and other classroom resources. They even researched directions and classroom materials they wrote themselves. Teachers also compared student scores to text they had just leveled. As they did these evaluations, most experienced profound "Aha!" moments.

The net effect was a heightened understanding of the value of knowing the text readability compared to student ability levels and purpose of the reading material. For example, when we read aloud to children, we select books that are more difficult since listening vocabulary is typically higher than reading vocabulary. On the other hand, if we want the students to read fluently for added confidence, we would select an easier book. The scale enables us to adjust more accurately.

With this better understanding of the dynamic ebb and flow of ability between groups of students, teachers changed lesson plans and other resources, and as a result, are improving education.

"Before, I just chose books that I liked, or books that matched the content I was teaching," said Lora Cochran, sixth grade reading teacher. "Now, I am much more in tune with the reading level of the books I select, to match the needs of the students in my classroom. This is a powerful tool. The more I use it, the more I expect it to enhance the quality of my instruction."

Other areas of discussion opened, evoking additional positive change. For instance, social studies teachers who had relied on the almanac and the encyclopedia realized they needed to expand these student reference sources. Teachers share the framework and test data with parents. This more comprehensive look at how their children are progressing helps the parents understand how to gauge the level of reading material their children need. Staff have also been teaching students how to use the scores.

"The key is to turn information over to students so they know how to appropriately choose their own books," said Lisa Uhrig, eighth grade language arts teacher. "The Framework empowers students and gives them the means for selecting the most appropriate reading material for their class projects."

Next Stop, the Library
With all this great data, it seemed a logical step for us to build a database. After our teachers and students became comfortable using the scores within the classroom, we developed a dynamic media database that facilitated "smart" library materials check-out.

To build it, we started by indexing our entire library collection to the Lexile scores. Next, we added information on all our students, including their current NWEA test score-derived Lexile Framework score.

Within a month of testing, the librarydatabase records are updated. This is a relatively easy process, because test scoring is electronic. We rely on open database technology to facilitate the process of inputting the data. We maintain security by using only the Lexile Framework score, not student test scores.

Learning is enhanced when the gap between student reading ability and difficulty of text is kept within an appropriate range. By keeping track of what material is best for each student, the database helps even our librarian to be an integral part of that process.

"With the database, I can direct students to the books at their ability level," said Bethany Grupp, librarian for the Brush Middle School. "In the past, students would sometimes check out books and become frustrated because the book was too hard. The book came back unread, unused. This system helps a lot."

While the system currently is completely electronic, we expect to add a report function that would allow students to print out their personal book lists when they begin research or media center learning activities. These reports would be very similar to the reading pathfinder reports currently in use at other districts, but would be generated on an as-needed basis (see Figure 1).

Better Education, Less Work
Considering the instructional implications in being able to align known reading ability with known level of text, within any subject area, it became immediately clear that the framework provided a new and powerful dimension to education. Now staff can easily see when students are attempting class projects with reading materials that are much too difficult for them, before the students get frustrated or give up.

Teachers can also see when students are choosing reading materials much too easy for them and are getting by without being appropriately challenged, i.e., no real learning is taking place. More importantly, teachers can see how often the mismatch in reading ability and difficulty of text is occurring. Before we implemented the system, mismatch was frequent. Now, it is much more rare.

Coupled with the NWEA tests, the Lexile Framework has opened doors for thoughtful change and has had a direct impact on the quality of the instructional planning and curricular delivery in our classrooms. In a very real sense, it has opened professional thinking in terms of differentiating instruction to meet the varying needs of students. Using the information now available to them, our teachers are able to work smarter, rather than harder, to positively affect student achievement.

Northwest Evaluation Association

Reading Pathfinder

Student Name: Jane Excel Grade: 4 Lexile Measure: 588-688 RIT Score: 202

Based on your student's score from the NWEA reading test, he or she should be able to read any of the following titles at an appropriate level of challenge.

Level* Lexile Title Author
E-M 600 Blue Sky Butterfly Van Leeuwen, Jean
M-H 610 Scorpions Myers, Walter Dean
M 640 A Taste of Blackberries Smith, Doris Buchanan
E-M 670 Claudia and the New Girl Maring, Ann M.
E-M-H 680 Scientists Who Study Plants Higginson, Mel
E 690 Ninjas Don't Bake Pumpkin Pies Dadey, Debbie and Marcia Thornton Jones

*E=Elementary (grades K-5); M=Middle (grades 6-8); H=High School (grades 9-12)

Schools using NWEA test scores and Lexile measures to select reading materials complete a Reading Pathfinder report for every student. (A shortened version is shown here.) The Brush database generates this information electronically, eliminating the need for the paper version.


Larry Kleiber is the Director of Instructional Support and Program Evaluation at the Brush Public Schools RE2(J) district in Brush, Colorado; 527 Industrial Park Road, P.O. Box 585, Brush, CO 80703; 970/842-1576; e-mail: lkleiber@brushschools.org.

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