Thursday, September 13, 2012

I'm gonna assess the stuffin' outta you, bub!

Can I talk with you about something we used to call effective teaching?   Now it's called Response to Intervention, or RtI.

RtI isn't as scary as it seems.   Its basic premise is differentiating instruction for students without pushing them past their (learning) frustration points.   For example, an eleventh grade student reading on a fourth grade level who is handed an American literature textbook and expected to conquer it without any teacher support...just worksheet after worksheet...well, that's bad teaching.

RtI is about getting instruction geared towards different ability levels within the structure of the usual school day.   The first focus is on tier one...meaning...let's get all teachers to instruct in a way that maximizes learning.   Fair enough.   And a little common sense goes a long way with me.

Kids who still need additional help would be considered to be in tiers two or three.   Your lowest readers may even need one on one instruction with the reading specialist, if you are lucky enough to have one in your school.   RtI is an "all hands on deck" approach to instruction, but your options can be limited if you are light on faculty and resources, as many schools are in our current economy.

RtI is a way of thinking.   Your school decides how to implement it.   I'm over-simplifying the program concepts, but if you are teaching with the intent of having your students learn, you are probably all about intervening when a child needs more support and instruction.   And nobody had to force you to do it.

Here's the bumpy part.   RtI can quickly turn into an avalanche of data.   And the true blue RtI folks would be the first to tell you that data for data's sake, data that is not reviewed or used, is useless since it serves no purpose.   Many of the assessment tools were piloted in the elementary school, but they don't quite translate into meaningful information for the adolescent reader.

Let me pause and remind you that these are my opinions.   I encourage you to seek out research-based articles to make your own judgments.

Many of the assessments that seem to draft the barreling 18 wheeler that is RtI raise red flags more than anything else.   This could be more meaningful in lower grades were there's not a long history of prior assessments.   By 8th grade, we know who is at-risk from day one because we inherit 8 years of test scores and other information that indicate a child who lacks fluency in reading and math.   Using red flag predictors with adolescent readers seems to be putting the cart on top of the horse.   Yes, the cart on top of the horse.   Ouch.

That is all I have to say about that at this point, but I will tell you that if your school runs the Maze assessment, there's a free online Maze generator that you can use to  give your kids some practice before the real test date.   You can paste any passage into the space provided and come up with a text that can be used to remind the kids how short three minutes can be when one is reading and circling.

Assessing a child's learning is important.   But what do we do with that data?   Does it inspire us to change our instructional methods?   Does our school district identify areas in which we need additional teacher training?   Does our district invite presenters to train us in a manner that is in line with best-practices that work with children and adults?   Can teachers even interpret the data and apply it to their instructional approaches in a meaningful way?   Do all teachers have access to the data?   Is the data compiled in a user-friendly document or program?   How will you explain children's scores to them and their parents in clear terms that lack educationalese?

If we do not use the data, we are disrespecting the instructional time of our students.   Assessments are crucial to what we do, but how much testing is too much?   Think about the days in a school year and how much time is given over to assessments.   Are you assessing more than you are teaching?   Is each assessment valuable and valid?   Are they biased in any way?   Can they be scored objectively?  If you are able to preview potential tests for purchase, please don't waste any time kicking a flawed assessment to the curb before your district swipes its credit card.

Lastly, does your opinion matter?   Sometimes decisions are made outside of your learning community that are non-negotiable.   If that's the case, you have to do what you have to do to make the experience a positive one for kids.   Explain how the test is administered and what the results mean.   Tell them how you are going to use the results to benefit them.   Give them time to practice with the format of the test.   Make them comfortable with the process.

And if you teach in a way that causes children to learn, stick with it.   Protect your instructional time as best you can.   Perhaps this is the year that some of your struggling readers are ready to make some big strides.   Hopefully, the next time your school conducts a mass screening, they will see the progress that they are making thanks to your diligence.

When Laura Robb, Nancie Atwell and Kelly Gallagher prescribe an RtI plan, I will hop right on board and complete any assessments they see as vital.   Until then, I will need to weigh all of the options before moving forward.   Children first, right?

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