Lisa is a third grader who has been in intervention for two years. She was placed in intervention based on the results of a universal screener. This screener determined her reading rate, indicating she needed intensive support. She received intervention to improve her rate of reading four days per week for two years. Her data after two years of intervention continued to demonstrate a need for intensive support. A universal screener was used to make this analysis.
Since she was not making progress, we decided to assess this student using varied types of assessment tools that measured all the areas of reading. This is the display of her assessment results:
The results of her running record caused us to dig deeper. Her accuracy and comprehension were both at an independent level. Her rate, determined by words per minute (WPM), was very slow. When we looked at the analysis of her running records, we noticed she reread many times. Rereading the text allowed her to solve unknown words, but slowed down her rate. This reader was strong in sight words, but had difficulty decoding unknown words in context.
We then administered a diagnostic phonics assessment. This assessment determined that Lisa did not understand long vowels, variant vowels, diphthongs, or multisyllabic words. She was continually rereading to decode words based on the context of the sentence and story since she did not know how to phonetically decode them. This process slowed her down and affected her rate. An intervention focused on rate and fluency did not address her weakness in phonics, and therefore she continued to struggle.
In this case there was not an assessment plan in place to truly diagnose Lisa’s strengths and weaknesses. As a result, the intervention program did not focus on her needs, and the assessment tool did not measure Lisa’s weakness. She therefore continued to struggle. After four weeks of explicit, systematic, strategic phonics instruction, Lisa was independently reading grade-level text.
Individualizing Assessment and Intervention
Intervention should be the most differentiated instructional component in a school’s literacy model. Readers who struggle to progress require the most expert, focused, responsive literacy instruction. Legislation for RTI has been a catalyst for many schools to design this type of multileveled instruction for students. Here is an explanation from the RTI Action Network:
Response to Intervention (RTI) is a multi-tier approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs. The RTI process begins with high-quality instruction and universal screening of all children in the general education classroom. Struggling learners are provided with interventions at increasing levels of intensity to accelerate their rate of learning. These services may be provided by a variety of personnel, including general education teachers, special educators, and specialists. Progress is closely monitored to assess both the learning rate and level of performance of individual students. Educational decisions about the intensity and duration of interventions are based on individual student response to instruction. RTI is designed for use when making decisions in both general education and special education, creating a well-integrated system of instruction and intervention guided by child outcome data.
Assessment to identify and monitor progress is identified as an essential component of this legislation, yet we find that it is not typically being used to create effective intervention designs. Many schools do not have a comprehensive assessment plan. The types of assessment tools available are not varied and do not assess the different areas of reading to provide the depth of information we need to understand our readers. “One size fits all” assessment plans encourage the design of “one size fits all” intervention plans. Students who are struggling get the same program regardless of diagnosis. Research has documented that these one-size-fits-all interventions are ineffective, as Reid Lyon explains:
None of the intervention programs were equally effective for all of the children studied. There may be individual characteristics of children that predispose them to more or less success with a particular program. It’s clear that we need to move away from a “one-size-fits-all” mentality and apply continuous assessment approaches that evaluate how well an instructional program is working with particular youngsters.
What results is a reciprocal cycle of one-size-fits-all assessment plans informing one-size-fits-all intervention plans. Many readers like Lisa fail to progress after months and months of intervention.
Schools need different types of assessment tools available for different purposes. The biggest problem we see is the use of screeners to diagnose and monitor the progress of struggling readers. Universal screeners are meant to predict which students will develop learning or behavioral problems. These tools tell us if a student is struggling, but they do not tell us why a student is struggling. They are diagnostic in terms of the prediction of a problem, but not diagnostic in telling us why the reader is having the problem.
Often we see these screeners being used to determine who is in intervention. All students are placed in intervention, and then the same screener is used to monitor progress. The problem that emerges is that the intervention becomes “one size fits all” because the screener is “one size fits all.” In addition, the screener may not measure the same area of reading that the intervention is focused on, so we are instructing in one area of reading and assessing in another. Either way this reciprocal cycle of one-size-fits-all assessment informing a one-size-fits-all intervention plan is the result. For us, it is not enough just to know readers are struggling; we need to know why they are struggling so we can provide intervention that meets their specific needs as readers.
Assessment is the key to designing and monitoring a differentiated and responsive intervention model. Allington’s research on RTI designs identified eight principles to consider in designing effective reading interventions:
- Begin an intervention plan
- Match reader and text level
- Dramatically expand reading activity
- Use very small groups or tutoring
- Coordinate intervention with core classroom
- Deliver intervention by expert teacher
- Focus instruction on meta-cognition and meaning
- Use texts that are interesting to students
Although assessment is not explicitly listed in these principles, it is a key component in each of them. Each one of these principles requires the use of varied and comprehensive assessment tools to diagnose, monitor, and evaluate student learning. Assessment that is varied, comprehensive, and authentic is the component we believe is missing in the design of many intervention plans.
The first step is for schools to create a balanced assessment plan in terms of the types of tools available and the areas of reading measured. Assessment tools are grouped into different categories: quantitative or qualitative; diagnostic, formative or summative; informal or formal:
Assessment in Perspective, 2013, p. 21
We need assessment plans that help us understand the profile of a reader, identify students at risk, monitor students’ progress, and help diagnose learning difficulties. As educators, we need to ask ourselves, “Are the assessments we are administering informing our instruction?” If the answer is no, we need to question why we are doing them. When we work with teachers and administrators to analyze student assessment data, we talk about the importance of obtaining assessment data that helps us identify each reader’s strengths and needs. We first talk about the profile of a reader and why we are assessing our students.
What Reading Skills and Strategies Make Up a Profile of a Reader?
- Phonemic Awareness
- Reader’s Disposition
Why Do We Assess Students?
- To identify students at-risk
- To diagnose reading difficulties
- To track progress of all students
- To inform instruction
- To create a profile of a particular student
- To compare students with grade-level benchmarks
- To decide whether students are meeting district goals
We often ask administrators and teachers to complete this chart so we can analyze what assessment data is being collected and why they are administering each assessment. Here is a sample of what the form might look like after a district has completed it.
Once all of the current assessments are listed, we begin to determine whether the school is using assessments that reflect the full profile of the reader and whether all of the assessments they are using are necessary.
Groups typically notice that they do not have assessments for certain areas or have too many assessments for a certain area. The group can note areas in which their assessment plan is weak and begin choosing between assessments in areas where they have too many.
This exercise also gets groups to think about the frequency of assessments, as well as the different populations of students who are receiving these assessments. It encourages educators to think about using assessments to differentiate between possible diagnoses when they have identified a struggling reader. Currently, many districts go through the list and give all students every assessment without carefully considering the need to do so and the benefit derived from each additional assessment. We believe it would better serve our students to identify a smaller set of assessments that all students should receive and then, based on those results, administer additional assessments as needed.
Response to Intervention has powerful potential for our struggling readers. Creating responsive, focused, differentiated intervention models will give these readers access to the “expert, intensive reading instruction” proven to accelerate student reading development. This will happen only if assessment is used to identify, diagnose, and monitor our readers. If a reader is not growing in her ability to decode and comprehend authentic text after four weeks of intervention, then the plan needs to be revised. This revision should be based on the results of varied assessment tools that measure all areas of reading. When assessment is used purposefully to diagnose needs, then we can design and provide intervention that is truly responsive and effective.