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Making Sense of School-Based Assessments

By Susan Miller

Parents are often bombarded with a lot of data about their children. The following quotes are common, “Maria is at a “K” level right now, but our goal is to get her to “P” this year.” “Your son Bill scored in the 30th percentile when compared to his peers in the 4th grade on the recent computerized achievement test.” What does it all mean and does this data help your child’s teacher identify kids at risk for reading difficulties? We know from years of research that early identification along with targeted early intervention changes outcomes for students in reading, math, language, and behavior. Differences among children are there long before formal schooling, but not always identifiable until the child begins receiving formal reading instruction.

Did you know that achievement tests like NWEA MAP, for example, take up to 60 minutes per student to complete? Ultimately, the results inform school administrators about the overall performance of a school. The results do not help a teacher know what to address in their instruction or how to group students according to needs. Assessments like the DRA that take 30-40 minutes per student to administer provides a guided reading level for the teacher to use for independent reading work in a workshop-based classroom. Both above-referenced assessments were not designed to predict students who are at-risk for reading difficulties. When it comes to efficiency, both assessments take up a lot of time to administer per child. When it comes to informative data that can be used to identify students at risk, and subsequently provide meaningful intervention, both assessments fall short.

The New Jersey Department of Education in partnership with Rutgers University has identified universal screening assessments as helpful tools whose purpose is to identify students’ risk status relative to benchmark goals per grade level. For example, by the winter of 1st grade, a student’s ability to read authentic grade-level text is emerging; that student should have established basic word attack skills to decode unfamiliar words and read fluently enough to provide a retelling of what they read to the teacher. For students in Kindergarten, phonemic awareness is emphasized in the screeners since decades of research has shown that without phonemic awareness, a student will struggle to learn how to read/spell. Unlike the above-referenced assessments that take up a lot of instructional time, universal screeners do not. Generally, they take up to 8-10 minutes per student to administer with the results directly informing the teacher of what skills need to be addressed. In some cases, the results of screeners inform the school administration that the core reading program is not addressing early literacy benchmark skills.

What assessments does your school use and do they include universal screening tools? If they use universal screening tools, are you given the results? New Jersey schools are not required to provide results of screeners, you have to know to ask!


Susan E. Miller is a recognized speaker and expert educator in the field of dyslexia. She has been hard at work for 30 years on behalf of students with a range of learning disorders and their families. She has presented at national and regional International Dyslexia Association conferences, Learning Disability Association of New Jersey, Association of Special Education Schools in NJ (ASAH), and Parent Teacher Organization meetings on topics including dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia.

Susan is a Credentialed Wilson® Dyslexia Therapist and a certified educational diagnostician in the state of New Jersey. She is a LETRS credentialed local trainer (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) and a certified trainer for the Acadience family of reading