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Meaningful Assessment—And Why It Is Critical for Reading Success

Dr. Ruth Kaminski

Dr. Ruth Kaminski

Acadience Learning

Release Date: Thursday, August 4, 2022

In this podcast, Dr. Ruth Kaminski, coauthor of Acadience® Learning K–6 and other respected assessments, will discuss the many aspects of assessment that make it a meaningful and essential tool for preventing reading disabilities and promoting reading success.

Join us as we talk with Dr. Kaminski about the reasons educators should rely upon assessment for curriculum alignment, progress monitoring, and classroom planning.

We’ll explore:

  • The critical nature of assessment
  • Who should be assessed, when, and how often?
  • How assessment can help teachers align their reading instruction with the science of reading
  • The various features of assessment that make it meaningful for teachers

Dr. Ruth Kaminski

Ruth A. Kaminski, Ph.D., is the co-author of Acadience ® Reading (previously published as DIBELS Next ®) and the co-founder of Acadience Learning. Dr. Kaminski is also the lead author of the early childhood literacy assessment, Acadience ® Reading Pre-K: PELI ®. Dr. Kaminski’s academic background includes degrees in speech pathology, early childhood special education, and school psychology. She has conducted research on assessment and preventative interventions for preschool and early elementary age children for the past 30 years. Dr. Kaminski has extensive experience consulting with Head Start agencies and public schools throughout the United States and abroad. In addition, Dr. Kaminski brings more than a decade of experience as a classroom teacher and speech/language clinician with preschool-age children.

Transcript

Narrator:
Welcome to EDVIEW360.

Pam Austin:
This is Pam Austin. Welcome back to the EDVIEW360 podcast series. We are so excited to have our listeners back with us today. I'm conducting today's podcast from my native New Orleans, LA. Today, we are excited to welcome Dr. Ruth Kaminski, the co-author of Acadience® Reading, previously published as DIBELS Next®, and a co-founder of Acadience Learning. Dr. Kaminski is also the lead author of the early childhood literacy assessment, Acadience® Reading Pre-KPELI. Her academic background is impressive and illustrates why she is so respected worldwide. Dr. Kaminski holds degrees in speech pathology, early childhood special education, and school psychology. And she has conducted research on assessment and preventive interventions for preschool and early elementary age students for the past 30 years. Welcome, Dr. Kaminski.

RK:
Thank you, Pam. It's great to be here.

PA:
Great to have you. With your experience as a classroom teacher and speech and language clinician with preschool children, it's somewhat obvious how you learned early on what assessment was necessary to help all kids learn to read. Let's talk a little bit about the early years. What did you see in your teaching and research that led to your passion for assessment as prevention?

RK:
Well, Pam, as you said, I've been at this for 30 plus years, but I started my career as an early childhood speech language clinician and special educator. I worked for years as the special educator and speech language clinician in a large rural county in my home state of Pennsylvania. And I worked as a teacher in a classroom-based, early childhood special ed program, but also was an itinerant specialist working with children and families in their homes. I'd travel around the county and in my classroom and on my caseload, I served children across the full range of abilities. I had children who had severe multiple disabilities, children with mild to moderate speech language delays, and everything in between. And in that role, I would work with children from ages 3 to 5, and then the children I worked with would go from the preschool program to kindergarten in one of two elementary schools in this rural county.

Now, remember I was the early childhood special educator, so the kindergarten teachers knew me. And here's what I noticed, what started happening, especially with those children with mild, moderate speech language delays, about two thirds or three quarters of the way through the year, the kindergarten year, around about March or April, I'd start to get phone calls from kindergarten teachers, "Ruth, do you remember little Joey, Michelle, Dina, Robbie. Well, they're not doing so well. What can you tell me about them?" Or sometimes the school psychologist. And there was one school psychologist who served that rural county, he'd come to me when the children I had worked with his preschoolers were in first, second, third grade or beyond. And the school psych would say, "Guess who was just referred for learning disability evaluation, guess who was just referred for reading disability, guess who was just referred for..." And this is the term that we used back then “socially, emotionally disturbed.”

And that last one really happened. At that time, Acadience Reading wasn't a vision, but here's what I knew and what was a vision and what I said to that school psychologist, I said, "I told you that child needed to be followed up." And the last year I worked there before I moved to Oregon for graduate school, my boss called me, the director of the preschool special ed program and said, "Ruth, why are you referring so many kids who look as if they're doing fine to the preschool transition team?" And I said, "Because I want them to be followed up." I didn't want them to enter school on track and then have nobody monitor how they were doing until they fell so far behind that they were finally noticed. So, when I started my doctoral program in school psych at the University of Oregon, Roland Good was a new faculty member.

He had been trained as a school psychologist and he and I were talking in the early days for both of us in this program. And he said, "You know Ruth, I had a lot of kids referred to me for reading disabilities in second, third, fourth, fifth grades, where were they earlier than that?” And I said, “I know where those kids were in preschool, Roland.” And that’s when we started to develop our assessment tools that could be used to monitor the progress and follow up on children and make sure that they were staying on track. And over the past 10 years, we’re actually over the past 30 plus years, not just 10. We started doing this work in assessments so that we could follow kids up and monitor their progress. And I’m committed to early education, it’s where my heart is. But what’s clear to me is that we have to not only get kids on track as early as possible, we have to keep them on track. So, that is the importance of assessment from my perspective and how I got interested in it.

PA:
Wow, what a story. Early intervention, yes, but also keeping your finger on the pulse of where students are so they don't fall away. Correct?

RK:
You bet. Yes.

PA:
Great. Well, we know that good assessment helps inform instruction and also helps educators know when intervention is necessary. However, how should teachers rely on assessment for curriculum alignment, for progress monitoring and classroom planning too?

RK:
OK. Well, that's an important question, Pam, and a big one, but too often, I think assessments are done because they're required and teachers don't actually use the data to inform the things you talked about. And sometimes it's because the assessments that they have to do, like state tests, aren't actually designed to inform instruction. And sometimes it's because they actually don't know how to interpret and use the data. So, you mentioned, curriculum alignment, progress monitoring, and classroom planning, so let me address all of them. Curriculum alignment. It's crucial that the skills you're assessing and the skills you're teaching are the same. Now you may say, “Ruth, that's a no brainer,” but you would be surprised by how often I've seen that to not be the case. For example, educators assessing using Acadience Reading, but the curriculum that's in place, it doesn't address the skills, such as phonemic awareness or phonic skills that are assessed by Acadience Reading.

So, how do you get that alignment? Both your curriculum and your assessment should be informed by the body of research about what we know about how reading develops. That's known these days as the science of reading. So, that's curriculum alignment. Now progress monitoring. I mentioned earlier that assessing at one point in time to know which students are on track isn't enough. Students may be on track at one time, like beginning of kindergarten, but as new skills come in and are integrated with old skills, you need to keep monitoring progress and assessing periodically to make sure that students are making adequate progress. We don't want to wait until kids fall so far behind or wait until the end of the year to see if they're back on track or not. Then, in terms of classroom planning, data at the classroom level can help you to plan how you're going to provide support to all of the learners you've got in your classroom.

So, if you have a handful of students coming into, let's say your first-grade classroom, who don't have phonological awareness skills, you might provide small-group instruction for those students. But if a majority of students come in not having those skills, that tells you you might need to do some classwide instruction on phonological awareness. And it won't hurt the handful of students who actually have the skills to have that review. So, you can also use that data at a classroom level to plan how you're going to address the needs of the children you have in your classroom.

PA:
Using the data appropriately. It's a learned skill that we need to provide for educators, right?

RK:
Oh, you bet it is.

PA:
It's said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Is that true here? And what can educators avoid when they rely on good data?

RK:
Well, given everything I've already said, I hope it's clear that an ounce of prevention is most definitely worth a pound of cure, or maybe we should say an ounce of good instruction to prevent reading difficulties is worth a pound of reading remediation, trying to get kids back on track when they're so far behind. So, if as educators, we use good assessment data to get students on track and keep them on track. We will avoid having to expend a whole lot more resources later on down the pike on remediation. Now there will still be some students who might need remediation, but if we do our part to prevent reading problems in the first place, the number of students who require remediation will be few.

And then we can expend the resources we have to address the needs of the few, which is doable a whole lot more doable than providing intervention and remediation to a large proportion of students. We'll also avoid having students who are non-readers or poor readers, who do poorly academically and have a whole lot of increased risk of things like dropping out of school. Juvenile delinquency. It's no small thing. I say, let's use good assessment data, data that's reliable, valid, meaningful, collected efficiently. Let's use that data wisely to avoid at all costs, having children be non-readers or poor readers and all those other poor outcomes.

PA:
I just love the idea of an ounce of data and instruction being worth a pound of cure there.

RK:
Me too.

PA:
Ruth, is it ever too early to assess and gather data on young learners to plan instruction?

RK:
Well, knowing that I have a history as an early childhood special educator, you can probably guess my answer to that one. And the reality is the precursor skills to early reading start way before our kids enter school and get formal reading instruction so the sooner, the better. Now that doesn't mean that assessment takes center stage and dominates everything we do, especially for young children, but it does mean that we use good assessments and for the really young children, that means assessments that in addition to being reliable, valid, all those things, are developmentally appropriate. And then use that information to know how the children are doing, whether or not they might need some additional support to acquire the critical precursor skills. And I've used the word efficient when I talk about good assessment, and that's important because you want your assessment to be efficient so that you can actually spend most of your time on teaching, on creating the opportunities that young children are going to have, the activities they're going to engage in, through which they'll be able to learn, play, and practice those skills.

PA:
Play, I heard the word play Ruth, I'm loving it.

RK:
You bet. And there are lots of things you can do through play and for young kids in learning and it doesn't mean we don't assess and monitor kids’ progress. Those things are not mutually exclusive.

PA:
Definitely. Well, let's take a slight shift and talk specifically about the signs of reading. How can assessment help teachers align their reading instruction with the science of reading in Structured Literacy?

RK:
Good question. And as you and the listeners here may know, the science of reading comes from decades of research. That's strong, that's converging, and it's decades of research across lots of disciplines, not just education, but psychology, reading, neuroscience, about how we as human beings, as people learn to read. So, if we use that as our driver, if our assessment is aligned with the science of reading, you're going to be assessing the essential or the critical early literacy and reading skills that children need to acquire in order to read. And your assessment will tell you which children need support on which skills. And again, those skills, if we're driven by the science of reading will be the critical ones that will be included in approaches like Structured Literacy that are also informed by the science of reading. And in that case, your assessment will be aligned with your instruction. And that is really critically important if we're going to get and keep all children on track.

PA:
So, what you're saying is the science of reading, it's not something new. You're referring to decades of research.

RK:
It is not new, but this term, this new way of referring to it, the science of reading, but the research you are exactly right, has been around for a long time.

PA:
And something you brought up was very interesting, how it's multilayered, Dr. Kaminski. That the idea that it's not just those reading skills, those other layers that are important as well. Do you mind repeating that just again for our listeners? Because I think that was important to know and understand.

RK:
OK. That we're not just looking at the educational research, but psychology, reading, neuroscience, even lots of brain research, and all of these things are converging and coming together and helping to shape what we know about reading and how to best teach it.

PA:
Most educators know what assessment is and how it reveals, which students need help and where. But however, I'd like to talk more specifically on the various features of assessments that make it meaningful for teachers. What have you seen over the years that teachers find most useful and meaningful?

RK:
Well, Pam, having been a teacher and having worked with a lot of teachers, I think that teachers find assessment most useful and meaningful if it helps them to make decisions about the students that they teach. And the two decisions that you mentioned are actually pretty big ones: Which students need help and where? Now, I think assessments are also useful to teachers if they're relatively quick and easy to administer and score, remember I've mentioned efficient a few times already. They're useful if they allow teachers to actually observe children doing the skill, like actually watching, listening to children read or telling you the sounds and words. There are a lot of assessments that are just computer based and kids go off to the computer lab.

But I think it's meaningful when teachers actually sit down with the child and watch them do things like read. They're meaningful, if they can give immediate results that teachers can take immediate action on, and results, I think that are easy to share with parents. And that makes me think of another feature and that's assessments that have, I'm going to say research-based benchmarks, cut points for risk. These scores are really essential for knowing which children are at risk, which ones are on track, which children are making adequate progress toward meaningful outcomes and which children might need some support or modification. So, now let me think. I think I said assessments that are efficient, directly assess observable skills, give immediate results, have research-based benchmarks and cut points, and are shareable with parents.

PA:
Oh wow. That’s very specific. And we know teachers and educators will know what to look for in an assessment. So, not all assessments are equal. Can we conclude with that statement?

RK:
Yes, we absolutely can.

PA:
All right. We know that learning at school is enormously impacted by learning at home as well. How does assessment support school-and-family partnerships?

RK:
Well, I think assessment can support school-and-family partnerships, if and when the assessment results are provided to parents in a timely manner and a way that's understandable to the parents. I am a parent, but when my children were younger than they are now and were in school, I'd get results of their state tests that were taken eight months earlier. So, not exactly timely. And then it was just basically a table of numbers with a little bit of interpretive information about percentiles, but nothing about important meaningful skills. So, earlier I said that research-based benchmarks were important. And one of my favorite ways of showing the data to parents is in a graph. Showing parents a graph is visual. And because it's visual, it's powerful.

And when you can actually show parents where their child is on a data point and where you want them to be, and then talk about what it is you're going to be doing to get them there, parents find that meaningful. And the other thing that's great about sharing a graph is that you can share your child's progress along the way, that provides transparency makes us as educators accountable for what we're doing, which I know might be a scary thing because if a child isn't making progress, a parent might ask, "Well, what are you doing about that?" But it's also a great partnership building tool. If you share with parents the specific skills, “We're going to be working on, listening to and hearing sounds in words like, how mom and me and moon all start with the sound mmm.”

Or, “We're going to be working on learning the sounds that go along with the letters like A, B.” And if we share that information with parents, it makes it concrete. That's what we're going to do to get your child from point A to point B. And my experience is that parents often ask, "Is there anything we can be doing at home to help?" And even if they don't ask, you can...You've given them some specific information that they can use if they choose to. So, I think giving information, assessment information to parents that's meaningful is a really great way to build a home/school partnership.

PA:
Right. Great advice, Dr. Kaminski. The idea of a visual, it provides that picture, a clear picture and also an avenue for improvement as you said. Just the very idea of being that specific and concrete will help, honestly, ease that connection between the school and the home. I'm very appreciative of your competence here. So, lastly, what is your hope for educators as they encounter young learners who may be a bit behind when these kids start school this fall? From an assessment standpoint, what would you recommend for teachers to help all students flourish?

RK:
OK. My hope and my recommendation, big question. My hope is that educators will start the year with good information, good assessment information so they know which students are behind, as early as possible in the school year. And not only that they know which children are behind, but that they have the tools, the resources, curriculum programs, whatever they need to provide the differentiated support that each student needs. And also that they as teachers have the support that they need from their administration, from the leadership, to do what's needed to get all children on track and to keep them on track. Regarding recommendations, I'll tell you on the cusp of these past challenging COVID years, we've gotten a lot of questions about whether or not we recommend lowering the benchmarks and my recommendation, there is an unequivocal, no.

PA:
I agree.

RK:
Rather do whatever it takes to get as many kids as possible to the benchmarks. Now, this is going to take some creative thinking, strategizing, a lot of working together. Right?

PA:
Yes.

RK:
And maybe grouping children across classrooms, across grade levels, but doing what it takes. And one of the books, when I started my work that I cut my teeth on, was the seminal book Beginning to Read by Marilyn Jager Adams. And she said, and I'm going to paraphrase here because I don't have the quote directly in front of me: For these students, we don't have a classroom moment to waste. And I would say there was never a time when it was more important to use the most effective and powerful assessments and reading interventions that we have at our disposal. And actually the reality is, we may need to use those interventions for a larger number of students than we have in the past. So, that means we have to look at not just putting in place effective interventions, but maybe strengthening our core curriculum for all students. If our core is based on the signs of reading and we're assessing the critical skills, it's going to go a long way to addressing the needs of each student and every student and all students.

PA:
Wonderful. Just to sum things up and I was taking some notes as you were talking, I just love listening to your comments, Dr. Kaminski. Looking at the idea of having good data or good data early. Also having evidence-based tools, strategies, curriculum, and support for teachers as well. Alright. Thank you for sharing your time with us today. It's been a pleasure speaking with you. Please tell our listeners how they can learn more about Acadience assessments.

RK:
To get more information about Acadience assessments, you can go to the website of Voyager Sopris Learning® and look for Acadience.

PA:
Thank you. This is Pam Austin bringing the best thought leaders in education directly to you.

Narrator:
This has been an EDVIEW360 podcast. For additional thought-provoking discussions, sign up for our blog, webinar, and podcast series at voyagersopris.com/edview360. If you enjoyed the show, we'd love a five-star review wherever you listen to podcasts and to help other people, like you find our show. Thank you.