A Spirited Reaction to One District's Approach to Standards-Based Reading Instruction

  • 20 August, 2017

Teacher question:

My district has moved into an approach of asking teachers to locate materials for standards-based instruction.  They have opted to create assessments to isolate individual standards to teach/test each standard individually. Each assessment is named by reading standard and is associated with grade-level English Language Arts courses. What thoughts do you have on how I might guide them to move from assessing isolated standards to a more integrated approach? 

Shanahan response:

Research has made it pretty clear that it is not possible to assess any of the individual standards so spending time on as your district is doing is a fool’s errand. Whatever scores or ratings they are coming up with have much in common with the syllables used for decoding in DIBELS; they’re nonsense.

Several years ago, ACT found that if texts are easy enough, kids can answer any kinds of questions about them. And, if the texts are hard enough, kids can’t answer even supposedly easy questions about them. What makes the difference in reading performance isn’t practice answering certain question types, but practice in interpreting texts that are challenging--that pose barriers to meaning.

That finding has been replicated numerous times between 1944 and 2017.

That’s the reason why both PARCC and SBAC are so careful to describe how they have developed tests based on the reading standards but then make no attempt to report on how well students or schools are doing with regard to any of the individual standards. It can’t be done in any meaningful or useful way, so they don’t do it.

School administrators and reading directors not knowing the difference between item writing and the psychological reality of the underlying cognitive constructs supposed to underlie those test items, blunder forward anyway.

The point isn’t that the standards should be ignored, but that teachers have to understand that reading comprehension tests do not/cannot measure single, separable, independent skills. These instruments provide nothing more than an overall indicator of general reading comprehension performance.

I don’t want to sound too negative on this: the point isn’t that reading comprehension tests are bad. They’re not. It is just that they measure “reading comprehension,” not independent skills like identifying the main idea, making comparisons, or drawing conclusions. Those “skills” can’t be separated and they certainly can’t be interpreted separately from the passages they are inquiring into. 

Instead of focusing on trying to get kids to answer certain kinds of questions, teachers should be teaching kids

  • to read complex texts that pose various comprehension/interpretation barriers;
  • vocabulary and how to figure out word meanings from morphology, context, and reference guides;
  • how to connect the ideas in a text with what they already know;
  • to interpret complicated sentences (by untangling the grammar);
  • to make and trace cohesive connections across a text;
  • to identify a text’s structure and how to use this structure to understand and remember the purpose of the text and what it says;
  • to use comprehension strategies when they find a text to be tough going (like summarizing, questioning, visualizing/imaging);
  • to pay attention to text meaning and to do something if it isn’t making sense;
  • to decode the words;
  • to read the text fluently with proper phrasing (paying attention to punctuation and meaning);
  • to write about the ideas in a text (modeling, summarizing, analyzing, critiquing, synthesizing).

Beyond that, teachers should be giving kids lots of practice reading such texts, participating in discussions of those texts, writing about those texts, and using those texts to accomplish other purposes (e.g., doing science experiments or art projects, constructing websites, or conducting historical investigations). All of those things should take place with texts that the students initially struggle to read, but that they master through instruction and practice.

What teachers should not be doing is spending inordinate amounts of time scrambling to find texts to work with, or teaching kids to answer particular kinds of questions, or having them practicing the answering of such questions. Those, it seems to me, are the teacher versions of having kids copy spelling words 10 or 20 times—a big time waster, with little potential learning payoff.

If you have kids reading texts and you have deep conversations about the texts—conversations that critically explore the ideas communicated and the value and quality of how that information is expressed—I have no doubt that an appropriate mix of question types will be considered.

I think your district is making a big mistake. What a waste of resources and effort. What a waste of children’s learning opportunity. 


See what others have to say about this topic.

Lori J Snowden Aug 20, 2017 06:02 PM

I agree with your stance! Teaching kids to create meaning and think critically about texts provides a true measure of overall reading comprehension, but NOT individual Common Core standards mastery. I strongly believe that good instruction coupled with books, strategies and resources ia key!

Rob Aug 20, 2017 07:00 PM

This also helps explains the complete waste of time school spend trying to analyze state test results. You simply can't identify individual standards for weaknesses and then develop an instructional path for doing better the next few years. It's simply not that easy. This might explain the plateau in the reading scores of the last 15 years

Bonnie Hain Aug 20, 2017 09:05 PM

Too many educators read only the individual standards and not the full document, including the introduction to the standards and the appendices. Taken together, it's clear that the standards are not meant to be taught one standard at a time. As you note, neither PARCC nor SBAC, the two consortia state summative assessments, report results by individual standard, since as reflections of the intent of the standards, they focus on measuring how well students engage in literacy across the strands. The individual items are written to one or more standards, and classroom questions/tasks can and should use the language and concepts of the standards. Teachers can and should sequence questions intentionally to help students deepen understanding of texts. As the year moves on, through supported analysis of more complex texts, students strengthen their reading comprehension skills. When students discuss these texts and ideas orally and in writing, deeper literacy skills are built. With study of texts worth reading (strong in informational content and literary quality), student vocabularies and knowledge of language and conventions also strengthens.

Our non-profit, CenterPoint Education Solutions, supports districts in aligning curriculum, assessments, and instructional practice with the standards. We have found many districts who need the perspective shared in this blog post--the need to focus on literacy, rather than isolated skill development. Kudos to you for your on-going sharing of critical ideas to support literacy education!

Patrice Aug 23, 2017 07:29 PM

I think your post needs further elaboration. Unfortunately, this kind of guidance rarely gets to those who need to hear it (language arts director, reading directors, Title 1 directors, principals, etc). The drive to connect teacher evaluation has led to the unintended (or perhaps intended) consequence of measuring teacher effectiveness through student growth as measure by standards based grading. Hence school based teacher/ administrator teams spent countless hours devising standards based grading practices. The result has, as you stated, sent them on a fools errand. When I see teachers trying to quantify student ability in useless "standards descriptors ", instead of spending time kid watching and writing useful narratives about their students cognitive abilities, I cringe. I wonder what Rick Wormeli thinks??? As always, thank you for your thoughtful posts! We need to hear your voice and insights often!

Karen C. Mitcham Aug 28, 2017 01:41 AM

What/How is NWEA MAP able to report the discrete skills about the specific reading skills?

Dana Dilger Sep 02, 2017 11:56 PM

What are your top reading resource suggestions for diving into deeper meaning and conversations with third and fourth graders? We subscribe to magazines and online resources and have several books as guided reading texts, but always seem to be searching for more. Any help would be appreciated.

Leanne Sep 21, 2017 11:01 AM

Your post makes a great deal of sense to me, and yet our teachers are still faced with the prospect of assessing individual common core standards on our standards-based report cards. What advice would you give them?

What Are your thoughts?

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A Spirited Reaction to One District's Approach to Standards-Based Reading Instruction


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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