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Case Study

By the Book: Technology Helps North Carolina School Close the Reading Gap

Kathy Schwabe knows that there's a standard assessment that most American schools use to keep tabs on their students' reading progress, but that didn't stop this Title I teacher from exploring a newer, more promising option a few years ago.

"It was sort of a fluke," recalled Schwabe, a reading teacher at Speas Elementary School in Winston-Salem, NC. "We didn't have enough first grade teachers, and until new ones were hired we needed a better way to monitor the children's progress."

Schwabe, who was working with the school's lowest level reading group at the time, was prompted by the institution's principal to attend a meeting about the Predictive Assessment of Reading (PAR), a tool developed by Winston-Salem, NC-based Child'sMind Publishing based on research conducted in the neuropsychology department at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

According to Paul Zimmerman, general manager at Child'sMind Publishing, PAR provides immediate results with specific recommendations for corrective intervention to address areas of weakness. The tests take 15 to 20 minutes for students to complete and provide educators with overall and specific reading proficiency scores, prioritized remediation recommendations, and estimates of the degree of educational challenge for individual students.

Schwabe said a two-day PAR workshop sold her on the idea of using a new method of reading assessment for her students. "At the time, I also had a group of third graders who were reading at a pre-K level," she said, "and I knew this would be a great tool for monitoring their progress."

PAR was first used on Speas Elementary's first graders, who were all tested to determine their reading levels. Schwabe said the fact that the text takes just a few minutes to complete makes it attractive for both students and teachers. "I can get a lot of information in just 15 minutes," said Schwabe, who can quickly determine if a child is deficient in phonics, lacking in fluency or in need of more vocabulary instruction.

"I've used a lot of tests over the years, and you can spend three hours on it or 15 minutes," said Schwabe, "the latter is about the entire time it should take to get all of the information you need as a teacher."

PAR has proved to be most effective in schools when every child in a classroom is tested within a short time (say, a few weeks). Because the test can detect problem areas before a child experiences the frustration of failure, Zimmerman said the assessment should be given to all students, not just the ones who are already struggling.

Through a secure Web site, teachers can access prioritized remediation recommendations and overall and specific scores are immediately available for letter-word calling, vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and rapid naming. In addition to individual test results, collective reports may be ordered for classroom, grade level, school, and district.

Schwabe said she enjoys PAR's accuracy and specificity. Starting with one large group of students, for example, she can drill down and determine which need help with phonics, those who would benefit from more classroom instruction and the ones who simply need to do more independent reading.

"It's especially useful with Hispanic children, and helps me figure out if they're getting hung up on English vocabulary, or if their challenges stem from language issues," said Schwabe.

PAR also adds value when working with students who have specific reading issues. Recently, for example, one of Schwabe's new third grade students came to her only able to read at a first grade level.

"I really couldn't believe that he'd made it through to third grade like that," said Schwabe, who after testing the student was able to tailor an effective reading program for him. Using PAR, she was also able to report back to her principal regarding the student's progress.

"That particular student, and a number of other individuals that I was using PAR with," Schwabe said, "grew at least 20 percent over the course of a school year."

Zimmerman, who spends much of his time educating teachers to give PAR a try in lieu of their existing reading assessment programs, isn't surprised by the success that Speas Elementary has had with his firm's product. He said PAR's proactive approach to "catching" students in grades K-3 before their reading issues blossom into significant challenges makes it unique in the marketplace.

"You can give this test as early as the second semester of kindergarten and it will diagnose any problems, tell how severe they are and what you can do about it," said Zimmerman. "Within an 80 to 90 percent accuracy, you can also tell at that stage what the student's third grade and eighth grade reading test scores will be."

Selling schools and districts on those benefits isn't always easy for Child'sMind Publishing, which is used by "schools all over the world, but not in any significant concentration," according to Zimmerman. "We've seen extraordinary success at a number of schools, and right now we also have some Reading First schools that we're trying to standardize on PAR."

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