Reading First is the federal education program that encourages teachers to follow the research on how best to teach reading. The effort requires that teachers teach phonemic awareness (grades K-1), phonics (grades K-2), oral reading fluency (grades 1-3), vocabulary (grades K-3), and reading comprehension strategies (grades K-3). Reading First emphasizes such teaching because so many studies have shown that the teaching of each of these particular things improves reading achievement.
Reading First also requires that kids get 90-minutes of uninterrupted reading instruction each day because research overwhelmingly shows that the amount of teaching provided makes a big difference in kids’ learning.
It requires that kids who are struggling be given extra help in reading through various of interventions. Again, an idea supported by lots of research. Early interventions get a big thumbs up from the research studies.
It requires that teachers and principals receive lots of professional development in reading, the idea being that if they know how to teach reading effectively, higher reading achievement will result. The research clearly supports this idea, too.
It requires that kids be tested frequently using monitoring tests to identify which kids need extra help and to do this early before they have a chance to fall far behind. Sounds pretty sensible to me, but where’s the research?
Truth be told, there is a very small amount of research on the learning benefits of “curriculum-based measurement” and “work sampling, but beyond these meager—somewhat off-point—demonstrations, there is little empirical evidence supporting such big expenditures of time and effort.
This isn’t another rant against DIBELS (the tests that have been used most frequently for this kind of monitoring). Replace DIBELS with any monitoring battery you prefer (e.g., PALS, Ames-Webb, ISEL, TPRI) and you have the same problem. What do research studies reveal about the use of these tests to improve achievement? Darned little!
There is research showing that these tests are valid and reliable, that is they tend to measure what they claim to measure and they do this in a stable manner. In other words, the quality of these tests in terms of measurement properties isn’t the problem.
The real issue is how would you use these tests appropriately to help improve kids’ performance? For instance, do we really need to test everyone or are there kids who so clearly are succeeding or failing that we would be better off saving the testing time and simply stipulating that they will or will not get extra help?
Or, are the cut scores really right for these tests? I know when I reviewed DIBELS for Buros I found that the cut scores (the scores used to identify who is at risk) hadn’t been validated satisfactorily. Since then my experiences in Chicago suggest to me that the scores aren’t sufficiently rigorous; that means many kids who need help don’t get it because the tests fail to identify them as being in need.
Perhaps, the monitoring test schemes (and the tests themselves) are adequate, but in practice, you can’t make it work. I have personally seen teachers subverting these plans by doing things like having kids memorizing nonsense words, or having kids read as fast as possible (rather than reading for meaning). Test designers can’t be held accountable for such misuse of their tests, but such aberrations cannot be ignored in determining the ultimate value of these testing plans.
There are few aspects of Reading First that make more sense than checking up on the students’ reading progress and providing extra help to those who are not learning… unfortunately, we don’t have much evidence showing that such schemes—as actually carried out in classrooms—work the way logic says they should. I think it is worth continuing to try to make such approaches pay off for kids, but given the lack of research support, I think real prudence is needed here:
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