Colorado Teachers Reduce the Time Required to Administer Reading Tests, Get Results

Last fall, Carol Avalos, principal of Highland Park Elementary School in Pueblo, Colo., discovered what seemed to be the answer to a lingering question: Did there exist a test that could accurately measure an individual studentís reading proficiency without consuming too much precious class time?

With the schoolís previous assessment method, a standard pencil-and-paper test, it took as long as two weeks to compile results for just one class. Staffing limitations meant that teachers personally administered each test, thereby interfering with their other responsibilities.

High Mobility Rate

The situation was further complicated by a student mobility rate of nearly 29 percent, which required teachers to test incoming kids throughout the school year. Luckily, Avalos heard about a computer-based reading test and database that promised to eliminate the frustration caused by traditional assessment techniques.

In December, 560 Highland students began using the new system, known as the Standardized Test for Assessment of Reading (S.T.A.R.), published by Advantage Learning Systems (Wisconsin Rapids, WI). Through Computer-Adaptive Testing technology, each test is modified to match the needs and abilities of the student taking it.

Ten Minutes or Less

Sitting in front of a Macintosh or Windows PC, the student selects the best word to fit in a sentence. S.T.A.R.ís Adaptive Branching process automatically analyzes each response and then presents the next question at an appropriately higher or lower reading level. This process reduces studentsí anxiety and ensures that they will never take the same test twice.

The program asks only as many questions as are necessary to determine the studentís reading level. According to Avalos, most students complete an entire test in less than 10 minutes. The principal noted that some teachers initially couldnít believe what they witnessed.

"Not all of my staff was willing to use the program unchallenged," she comments. Thus, a few instructors applied S.T.A.R. alongside another testing procedure that involved an extended period of one-on-one consultation with each student. Their findings confirmed that the software produced perfectly valid assessments.

"I will never forget it," recalls Avalos. "They said, ëYou are right, the S.T.A.R. results are comparable to the other method, and it takes much less time to administer.í They have been using S.T.A.R. ever since."

Just the Facts

Parents also reacted favorably to the new testing method. Avalos says that, during conferences, parents liked to see "factual data." S.T.A.R. gives them just that -- diagnostic reports indicating how their child is progressing compared to the rest of the class. The reports even provide suggestions for improving the studentís reading instruction.

For example, the Test Record Report for a fifth-grade boy might reveal that he achieved an Instructional Reading Level of three, a Grade Equivalent of 4.4, a Percentile Rank of 28 and an NCE score of 37.7. A Parent Report summarizes and explains these scores in the form of a letter, which leaves space on the bottom for teacher comments.

That same boyís Diagnostic Report might recommend that he "continue recreational reading on a daily basis," "identify bias, persuasion and propaganda within text," or "learn strategies for acquiring a specialized, technical vocabulary." For schools employing Accelerated Reader, a reading management system, the report assigns an estimated Zone of Proximal Development for independent fiction reading.

In one case, the parents of a student who attended a nearby school approached Avalos because they had been told their child fared poorly in reading, despite their active interest in his education -- taking him to the library, for instance. The parents asked Avalos for her opinion.

"They brought the student in and we administered the S.T.A.R. test," says Avalos. "They were very relieved to learn that their child was, in fact, reading on grade level. That student is now enrolled at Highland Park."

More Relaxed Mood

According to Avalos, students benefit in several ways from the computer-based testing. "Normally, paper and pencil tests make them nervous, they tense up and then they canít think." In front of a PC, however, they perceive the test to be more like a game. "They are more relaxed, and I think this makes the results more reflective of the studentís abilities."

Highland Park purchased a school-wide version of S.T.A.R. and installed it on computers in the lab as well as in classrooms. Since adopting the software, Avalos has noticed improvements in the schoolís language arts program as a whole, and she feels confident that students will leave campus better prepared for middle school and beyond.

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This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.