Shocking as it may seem, there was a period in my life when I didn’t like to read. Let me set up the back story: from kindergarten to 4th grade, I attended a Lutheran school. While I loved reading at the time, I dreaded the multiple choice tests I would have to take after completing every book. I thought the tests were pointless with asinine questions like, “What color dress was Alice wearing when she went down the rabbit hole?” I often found myself wondering what these assessments had to do with reading. Yet that was the program the Lutheran school was using: the students had to pick books from an approved list and then take the exams afterwards for comprehension assessment.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising when in fifth grade, the year my mom started homeschooling me, I gave up reading. I refused to pick up any book unless it was an installment in the popular yet completely fatuous Baby Sitter’s Club series. I was rebelling, showing those silly creators of reading programs across the nation that I would not be so easily manipulated into reading and regurgitating useless information on queue.
After months of barely touching books, my mother told me that she didn’t care what I read, as long as I was reading something. The only requirement was that she had to approve the content of the book first. Her words stuck with me, and I began reading in earnest again. In sixth grade, I read every single book written by Lucy Maud Montgomery, starting with Anne of Green Gables. The summer before seventh grade, I read Pride and Prejudice and then immediately moved on to Northanger Abbey. On my twelfth birthday, I remember reading Northanger Abbey nonstop. I didn’t want to do anything else, not even eat cake.
So what changed between fourth and sixth grade? I think the form of assessment played a huge factor in getting me back into books. My mom didn’t make my sister and me take multiple-choice tests. We wrote book reports or our own stories inspired by the literature we were reading. We watched the movie adaptations of books after we finished reading them, or talked about the books at length with each other. We role-played the characters from our favorite stories. In summation, we participated in authentic assessment.
In chapter three of Gunning’s book, he spends a great deal of time detailing standardized testing. Obviously this the norm in schools nowadays, thanks in part to government programs like NCLB that mandates all children (but 1% of the most cognitively impaired) must pass standardized tests. But Gunning also mentions the importance of authentic assessment: “Given an interactive transactional theory of reading…it follows that assessment should involve the kinds of reading and writing tasks that students are called on to perform in and out of school” (65). If children are struggling with reading and writing, how beneficial is a multiple-choice test going to be in assessing their strengths and weaknesses? If they can’t read the questions on the test, or they are struggling with comprehension, they are always going to do poorly on the exams. Gunning speaks of “dynamic” testing, which is the process of continually experimenting with teaching methods and forms of assessments. If one form of assessment gets you below-par results, try teaching the content another way. If the child still does poorly on the assessment, try a different type of test.
Children do not come in standardized packages, yet we try to push each child into standardized curriculum and assessment. Even if a child isn’t struggling with a concept, she might not do well with the type of assessment you are forcing upon her (see the rebellion of fifth-grade Cassie). If the job of a teacher is to instill the love of learning into our students, shouldn’t we be doing a better job catering to the individual student’s wants and needs? How do we expect every child to be enthusiastic about a subject if we don’t take the time to differentiate?
Thomas G. Gunning, Assessing and Correcting Reading and Writing Difficulties, rev. ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2010), 65-66.