The Woodward News

Local News

February 16, 2014

Concerns pop up over third grade reading tests

Woodward, Okla. — A new law that could impact a number of Woodward School District’s  third graders has school administrators working overtime to ensure the students take a test that is fair.

The Reading Sufficiency Act requires third graders in Oklahoma to score satisfactorily on the reading portion of the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test (OCCT) to be promoted to fourth grade.

Students who do not pass the test will be given the opportunity for intensive remediation over the summer months provided by schools then retested using one of the four state approved alternative tests. If they cannot pass the alternative test or do not qualify for one of the six “good cause” exemptions they will be retained, according to the literature issued by the Oklahoma Department of Education.

But through the study of samples of those alternative tests as well as the third grade OCCT tests from 2011 and 2012, an administrator locally noticed the complexity of some reading phrases contained within the tests.

The test questions seemed to require a higher grade level of reading ability, according to Woodward Assistant Superintendent Tom Fisher.

That got Fisher interested. So he studied the first alternative test he received in the mail called the Terra Nova.

“When I was looking at it – Deana (Fisher, the dean at Northwestern-Woodward) and I have a second grade granddaughter who is a very good reader – I knew, looking at this test, that Kate (his granddaughter) would have a hard time reading it,” he said.

Intrigued and concerned about what this must mean for Woodward third graders, Fisher, a mathematician and statistician, began to dig a little deeper.

Fisher Googled “readability tests” and found several types of tests - also used by the state - that determine the grade level readability under which a test is written.

“I did it the old fashioned way by counting syllables and I entered that information into the formula the readability test gave me and it came out 5.8, almost sixth grade reading level that’s required to read some of those test questions,” he said.

Alarmed by this and thinking he must have made a mistake he requested help from Susan Viles, Woodward School District assessment coordinator.

The two then ran all four of the alternative tests through a computerized battery of approved readability tests.

This was done by applying randomly chosen phrases from the tests into the readability monitor on seven different methodologies used nationally to basically “test the test.” Each uses a computerized model that counts syllables, word length and sentence length to determine what grade level the test question is written, Fisher said.

Again, it came out to about an average of a sixth grade reading level for all four approved alternative tests.

That got Fisher thinking about what grade level of reading was required for third graders to pass the OCCT test. That is the actual “high stakes” test slated to be given in April which will determine who will be promoted to fourth grade or who will be at risk for being retained.

“We applied the same testing to the 2012 and 2011 OCCT test and it was averaging at the fourth grade reading level,” he said.

Fisher took his concerns to Woodward Superintendent, Tim Merchant who has begun to pose the questions to state leadership. Fundamentally, the district believes if third graders are going to be tested with a “high stakes” outcome – that is being retained - based on their ability to read at the third grade level, the test should be written at the third grade level.

According to Terri Brecheen, executive director of literacy and early childhood for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, there are aspects of how each test, the alternative test and the OCCT high stakes test, are being utilized that need to be understood before a determination they are somehow unfair is made.

Brecheen said Oklahoma students are being tested using two different types of testing methods. One is called “criterion-referenced testing” and the other is called “norm-referenced testing.”

Criterion-referenced tests are used to measure student mastery of instructional objectives or curriculum (absolute performance), rather than to compare one student with another or to rank students. They are often used as end-of-unit tests in textbooks or as a "benchmark" to identify areas of strength or weakness in a given curriculum, readiness to move on to a different level of instruction, etc. . .  she said.

According to Brecheem, the OCCT criterion-referenced test should include grade level work, which students in the third grade should know.

The alternative test, which would be offered to a student who scored unsatisfactorily on the reading portion of the OCCT, is a “norm-referenced test”.

Norm-referenced tests compare an individual child's performance to that of his or her classmates or some other, larger group. Such a test will tell you how your child compares to similar children on a given set of skills and knowledge, but it does not provide information about what the child does and does not know. Scores on norm-referenced tests indicate the student's ranking relative to that group,” she said.

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