Why It's So Scary to Let go of Benchmark Assessment
Benchmark assessments are something that have been in schools forever in a day, and they've come to be understood as a way for us to track student growth and progress through their reading development. The challenge with a benchmark assessment is that they are usually written to align with a series of levelled texts that will be represented by a number or a letter and, unfortunately, they don't actually measure the thing that we think they do. We like the number or the letter that comes with them. We like being able to graph results. We like being able to have measurable growth. Those are great things, but unfortunately, the levels that are assigned to levelled reading benchmark assessments are nothing but somebody's guess about what this thing means.
Even though intellectually we might, with our new understandings of the science of reading and learning and structure literacy, know that those benchmark reading assessments are not going to get us what we really need to know, it can still be really hard to let them go.
But when it comes to text level assessment, what are our options? The best thing to do is to seek assessments that are norm referenced. This is very different from the designer of a levelled text program or tool, coming up with an idea about what we think or sort of these whispers amongst the teaching community about which level we think students should be at.
It's important to note though that the two popular freely available assessments (Acadience and Dibels) are screeners. They're not going to give us a number. They're not going to give us a definitive indication that this is the level that children are at. What they will do for us is help us identify which children are at risk and which children have the greatest chance of success in their reading into the future. That in itself can be a tricky thing to get our head around. It's ok to feel unsure about making the shift away from benchmark reading assessment.
Benchmark levels are, in some ways, like training wheels on a bike. When we have training wheels on our bike and we're riding our bike along, the training wheels give us a false sense of security. They actually don't require us to balance at all. And then one day someone decides it's time to take the training wheels away, and all of a sudden we have to balance for ourselves. Understandably, that makes us feel really, really wobbly. We thought we had this thing figured out, and now we feel like we absolutely don't. Those training wheels gave us a sense of security that did not mirror reality. And we need to be able to take a risk and trust the process and put one foot in front of the other.
When the training wheels are taken off, we have two choices. We can understand that feelings of being nervous or scared or downright terrified are normal or we can hop off the bike and go inside. When you take the training wheels off, and you give bike riding a go, you're terrified, but you do it anyway. You usually have someone standing next to you saying, "Good job, keep going, well done! Put your foot on the pedals. Pedal, pedal, pedal. Straighten up those handlebars. Oh, you're doing such a good job!" After a little while, we come to feel what that feels like to actually balance ourselves and we feel successful, and we can understand how to operate the bike with confidence.
It's the same with our teaching practice. If you are a leader supporting your team to work through this wobbly time of moving away from this very comfortable tool, it's important to remember to give people lots of encouragement. If you are that person who's a one person band in your school, trying to move away from this comfort zone tool, talk to yourself in the way that you would speak to others. Tell yourself, "Hey, this is going to be okay." Then put one foot in front of the other.
If you are a leader supporting people who are feeling frustrated and nervous and worried, it can be a little tricky to keep a lid on our own feelings if it looks like people aren't on board with the changes you are hoping to make. When you perceive that your staff are hesitating or not completed committed, it can be hard to manage. But here's the thing, vulnerability often shows up as resistance. It's entirely possible that what you perceive as resistance to change is actually worry.
We have to clearly outline what data collection and the measurement of progress is going to look like and have timelines. Don't make this an open-ended, you know, never ending piece of string. I've got all the metaphors for you in this podcast episode everyone! Outline this, so we've got timelines, so we have short-term and medium term goals, and this is nothing new for any of you. Make those goals specific. Make them time sensitive, make them achievable, make them relevant, and get people's voice when it comes to how we implement this thing.
So build trust, build support, and if you are on your own in this journey, in this moment, reach out to other people who can support you. If you're a Resource Room member we have the forum, we have our regular live get togethers. Be there for each other. We're all on the same team. We're all working towards that same goal, which is great outcomes for children.
Looking for guidance and resource for instruction that really helps to move the needle on student outcomes? It's time to investigate the Resource Room!