Closely Assessing Close Reading

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There are a lot of questions right now about assessing close reading.  The more we listen to teachers, administrators and coaches the more we realize the big question really is not about how do we assess our readers’ ability to closely read complex text for deep meaning.   The question is how do we prep our students so that they can perform well on “the test” and demonstrate that they can closely read complex text.  Then they begin to show us test prep materials and “fix-it” materials that are being published and sent out to schools.  Since close reading is so closely linked to the CCSS the discussion around assessing close reading is being tied to achieving “the number” on “the test.”

We do not think there is only one way to teach close reading.  We have been inspired and motivated by each and every blog post we have read during this blog-a-thon.  We have looked for connections between the ideas presented and have loved that each piece emphasizes purpose, meaning and response.   We think there are lots of ways to go about teaching close reading so that our students can strategically use tools to help them note, notice and wonder as they read, but we are very clear that there is only one way to lift the quality of close reading – formative assessment.  If close reading becomes the next thing we are “prepping” for than our readers will not use these tools in authentic, meaningful ways.  We love that everyone is writing about how to teach close reading (with a little assessment thrown in), but we think we need to get talking directly about the elephant in the room— assessment!

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In Pathways to the Common Core, Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman assert that “If there is a magical solution to reforming schools in line with the CCSS – that magic will come from an increased attention to formative assessments in the richest and best sense of the word, and from instruction that is increasingly assessment based.”  We completely agree!  Assessment cannot be separated from instruction.  We cannot view it as an “add-on”; it is what we do every day as teachers.  If we want to lift the quality of how our readers are thinking deeply and responding to text then we need to authentically observe them in the process of making meaning.  Assessment will be our window into understanding the challenges our readers are facing when they are interpreting the meaning of complex text.  If close reading becomes the thing we are preparing our students to do on “the test” it will not become a tool they use flexibly, effectively and authentically.

We are not so worried about the “test” itself, we are worried that we will once again fall into the trap of thinking that if we prepare our readers for the test that they will be engaged, proficient readers.  We all know this is not the case -been there, lived through that!  If we take this opportunity to redefine assessment to include the day-to-day assessing we do in our classrooms then we can help our students perform well on “the test” AND develop into engaged, purposeful readers.  We are convinced that if we teach them how to read closely every day for meaningful purposes then they will read deeply and also do well on “the test.”

So how are we assessing close reading day to day in classrooms?  Our first step is to construct a definition of close reading with a faculty or team of teachers.  What is it?  How do you do it?  What do we expect from our students?  How do real readers closely read?  How do these strategies and tools build K-6?  We have to know what we are asking our readers to do before we can assess it and we have to assess it before we can teach it.  We are working in teams to understand the metacognitive steps a reader goes through to read closely and then choose common tools to explicitly model for our readers.  Our readers need to know what it looks like, sounds like and feels like to read closely.  Once we have our destination in mind we can share that destination with our students.  We personally find it difficult to meet a goal that we are unaware of.  We need to make our students aware of our expectations and their goals.

Once our students are in the process of closely reading we want to assess their talk, their metacognitive processing, their written response and their reflection of how the process is working for them as readers.  We do this by listening in, observing, surveying, discussing and analyzing the work they are doing.  We collect notes on the observations we are making in whole class, small group and individual conferences so that we can analyze our observations to inform our instructional decisions.  We organize these notes into displays so that we can see patterns of instructional needs.

Here is a display of some needs we have observed in a classroom.   Inside the circles we have the learning objective and the students’ initials that need that instructional goal are under the circle.   If we notice that many students need that instructional goal then we might teach it in a whole class lesson as well as in a small group or conference.  When we notice a student’s need we may also document it on his/her conferring note, but taking the time to go through each of our student’s individual conferring notes and work samples on a nightly or weekly basis can be too time consuming.  We find that noting it on an instructional planning display helps us to make timely adjustments to our teaching as learning needs emerge.

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We use this type of display as we are listening to turn and talk, book club discussions, partner work and our conferences.  We also have it out as we are looking at notebooks to analyze written notes and responses to determine how to the lift the quality of student work.  In this student’s notebook entry below, the student reflects on the process of using annotation to help him read closely.  We would want to talk more with this reader about the tools he is using to annotate and figure out how he can use them to enhance his comprehension.  He might fit nicely in the “annotation systems” group that we noted on our instructional planning display above.

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There are many ways to collect and use formative data.  We hope we all begin to share the systems and structures we are using to document and use our formative assessment as we are discussing instructional practices for close reading—What is Close Reading?  How Do We Assess It?  How do we make sure it does not become a disconnected set of activities or “test prep”? We know it is inevitable that there will be “a test” and that we will most likely disagree with the overemphasis on the “number” that test assigns our students.  We cannot help but hope that if we focus on the formative assessment of close reading then we can guarantee that our students will not be judged by one number.  We love the excitement and professional dialogue around close reading – what it should bewhat it is not; schema or no schema;  closely reading our lives and the importance of allowing the learner to construct the understanding of how one close reads– now we are hoping to get assessment – “in the richest and best sense of the word” – into the forefront of the conversation.  We love this quote on Fran McVeigh’s post, “It’s complicated!  It’s messy! And close reading is definitely a big puzzle with no ONE right way to accomplish it!”  We agree there is no right way to accomplish it, but formative assessment is certainly our best bet to accomplish it in a meaningful, purposeful, engaging manner for our students.

What’s your perspective on closely assessing close reading?  We would love to hear your thoughts.

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