Ongoing Student Assessment

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One thing that seems clear in education is that students are unique and that how they will respond to our efforts to teach them is unpredictable. This is never more obvious than when we try to provide more intensive, individualized instruction for students who are having difficulty learning reading, writing, and math. Even when we use evidence-based interventions, we often find that (with apologies to Abe Lincoln) a new program might seem to work with all of the students for a short time and with some of the students in the long term, but none of the programs work with all of the students all of the time! Given this certainty, we are faced with the uncertainty about whether an individual student is likely to make satisfactory progress in a particular program of instruction. The fact that we cannot predict with certainty whether a particular instructional program will be beneficial for a student, then, is the essential reason why ongoing progress monitoring is necessary.


A useful analogy for progress monitoring is the “well check” system used in health care for screening and monitoring to ensure that the growth and development of individual infants and toddlers is satisfactory. The well check procedures involve, among other things, weighing and measuring young children on a regular basis and checking those growth indicators against typical developmental growth patterns. So long as growth rates are within the normal range, no recommendations for intervention are considered. When growth rates vary significantly, however, then changes in diet or medication may be introduced. If such changes are made, then the monitoring of growth rates may become even more frequent to allow for careful evaluation of the effects of those changes. The same kind of model is appropriate in education.


Instead of measuring individual growth, the measurement of academic progress traditionally has focused on describing differences in the levels of achievement between students. One reason for this approach in developing standardized achievement tests was the prevailing view that academic success was primarily the result of ability differences among students. The assumption was that the information produced by these tests was useful primarily in classifying students and placing them in different programs on the basis of their ability.


Over the past 30 years, an alternative approach to measuring student achievement has been developed that focuses less on describing differences between students and more on measuring their progress toward important educational outcomes. These progress monitoring procedures have been developed to describe the growth rates of students as they are learning reading, writing, and math. A primary assumption underlying the development of these progress monitoring procedures is that differences in rates of academic skill growth are affected by instructional differences and are not simply the result of ability differences.


Another important characteristic of progress monitoring measures is that they can be used as regularly and as frequently as necessary throughout the school year both to identify students at risk for academic problems and to evaluate the impact of changing a program on a student’s rate of academic growth. This potential for repeated measurement is in marked contrast to typical standardized achievement tests that are intended to be given only once or twice during the school year.


Two different approaches to progress monitoring have been developed. One approach, mastery monitoring (MM), is based on task-analyzing a desired academic outcome like reading proficiency into small component skills and then attempting to measure progress in attaining mastery of each of those small component skills. A second approach to progress monitoring, general outcome measurement (GOM), is based on identifying a single general task that provides an indication of change in the general outcome desired and then repeatedly measuring performance on that task over time to gauge the extent of change. Research evidence supporting the reliability and validity of the GOM approach is far more extensive than that for MM, and GOM is the approach more widely used in the schools for progress monitoring, in general, and in the Response to Intervention (RTI) approach.


GOM involves frequent, brief, repeated sampling of student performance on a single core task from the curriculum. Performance samples are obtained anywhere from once per week to three times per year, and the test probes to obtain these performance samples typically range from 1 to 3 minutes, depending on the general outcome being measured. The most extensive GOM research has been on measuring growth in reading at the elementary grades, and that research has identified the number of words read aloud correctly in 1 minute from different text passages of equal difficulty as a key indicator general reading proficiency. Students’ scores on this task are strongly related to other important indicators of reading proficiency and are predictive of student performance on state standards tests. Key indicators also have been identified for written expression when 3 minute samples are obtained and in math, for which samples ranging from 1 to 8 minutes are recommended. Continuing research on progress measurement has extended development of growth measures for secondary and early childhood levels of schooling and for English language learners.


Because progress measures can be used for screening to identify students at risk of school failure and for evaluating the impact of instructional changes on individual student growth rates, progress measures have become a central component of the newly developed RTI approach. Progress measures contribute by enabling us to universally screen for early prediction of academic problems, to signal the need for intervention to prevent those problems, and to evaluate whether those interventions are leading to solution of those academic problems before they become so serious that they cannot be overcome.

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