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Assessments in a Balanced Lit Classroom

     In a balanced literacy classroom, assessment-based planning is at the heart of the literacy model. It should be on-going, and drive instructional decisions. These assessments provide a clear window into each student’s reading life. Once you introduce a variety of assessments into your reading classroom, you’ll quickly see that there are no longer red birds, bluebirds, and yellow birds, but rather a unique ecosystem of readers constantly adapting and changing.  And, to keep with the ecosystem metaphor, you’ll find quite a few readers so sly with camouflage that they have hidden their literacy deficits under the canopy of good test-taking skills.

     Assessments in my classroom continue to evolve, and have become increasingly tied to my PLC grade level assessment decisions. Below you’ll find a summary of the assessment tools and opportunities for student reflection that I incorporate into my Balanced Literacy classroom.

Materials & Tools

DIBELS & Running Records (Formative/ non-graded) 
This is the area most in flux in my Balanced Lit classroom at the moment.  For several years, I have used DIBELS to assess reading fluency and basic comprehension.  I’ve had mixed feelings on this tool because, ultimately, this is beneficial to monitor non-fluent readers, and a waste of time (IMHO) for fluent readers. Last year, I moved to only using DIBELS as a progress monitoring tool for RTI. When it comes to running records, we all know that it’s time consuming.  In the past, I used running records for RTI. This upcoming school year, I plan to reverse it and use running records on all of my students.  I’ll do an initial assessment during the first weeks of school, and then shift the tool into my conferencing time throughout the year. I share DIBELS results, running records, and anecdotal notes with parents during parent conferences. 

Performance Assessments (Summative / test grade) 
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!!! After most extended text readings, whether through guided reading, modeled reading, or book clubs, students typically complete a creative performance assessment based on the text and standard(s) that we have been working on. I often use a choice menu of tasks or presentation modes to differentiate the process and product. You must create a rubric for this!  I promise, it takes a little hard work upfront learning to create rubrics, but it gets easier. If this is a common assessment among your grade level, be sure to share your rubric with your PLC members. I grade these projects, hang them in the classroom, and then send the graded rubric and project home to parents.

Reading Response (formative/ quiz grade) 
I use a reading response journal for quick formative checks. Students are given a 3-ring binder that contains a response choice menu, reading log, and written response section. (I created mine based off of Beth Newingham’s blog suggestions). Students will either bring their journals to our 1:1 conference or I will peruse responses every two weeks and assign a grade based on a response rubric.  *I just saw an idea on Pinterest where you have mini-rubrics on label stickers that you can attach to reading responses. It saves paper and time! I send these response journals home to parents twice a quarter.

Cold-Read Assessments once every two weeks at their current grade level  (formative/quiz grade) 
The easiest source for this is to use a Science or Social Studies passage/lesson from the textbook, with a correlated quiz from the textbook teaching materials. It’s essentially an open-book quiz.  I know…it’s a textbook and super traditional!  But, it’s non-fiction, relevant, rigorous and (supposedly) on grade level. We also can’t ignore that our students are assessed in a multiple choice format on standardized tests, typically using science and social studies passages. Other resources for these cold-read passages with comprehension questions include, and test prep books. These cold-read assessments should be at their current grade level, not the instructional level.  

Grade level Common Assessments (formative or summative/ graded) 
An entire blog post…no, make that a book…could be written on developing common assessments among your PLC. Look for a post on this topic later, but here’s the gist.  Balanced Literacy uses the Backwards-Design model, meaning you must decide what you want your student learning outcome to be related to the standard, and then design the assessment using a variety of DOK levels before you begin to actually write your lesson plans.  Your PLC needs to be able to answer these questions before drafting the assessment:

                What do we want the students to learn?
                How will we know when each student has learned it?
                How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty 
                in learning?

In my PLC, we typically look ahead in our instructional calendar and decide which standards will be assessed in an upcoming unit.  We then divide up the writing of the initial draft for each assessment. Initially, my PLC had content “leaders” that took charge of their content’s initial draft of assessments.  This only worked, though, for those content leaders with less assessments. We found that we needed more frequent language arts, and vocabulary tests than reading, science and social studies.  The distribution of assessments was uneven and led to quick burnout.  We later changed our process to creating a list of needed assessments and divided it up equally. 

Individualized instructional level assessments  - My school has used the Accelerated Reader program for several years to assess reading at student’s independent levels. For the past two years, we have taken a quiz grade every two weeks, using the average of all quizzes. While I liked the potential that the AR comprehension assessment data might have provided me, I was often concerned that the data was skewed.  When kids didn’t manage their time well, they would rush through books to meet the deadline impacting scores, or try to slip in a book below their instructional level to read it fast. 
My school is moving away from the AR program this school year.  I’m not sure yet what that will mean for this category of assessments. Stay tuned…

Conferencing (formative / non-graded) – Look for a blog post on 1:1 conferencing.  It’s a vital component in a Balanced Literacy classroom!

Does the Daily 5 Fit into Balanced Literacy?

The quick answer is yes, but the implementation will vary based on grade level, whether science and social studies are integrated into the primary reading block, and your local school initiatives related to upgrading independent workshop tasks.

The Daily 5 is a literacy framework designed by two veteran teachers, Gail Boushey and Jane Moser, intended to improve differentiation, classroom environment, structure of groups, and overall paperwork. If you look at the structure below, you’ll find that it matches up nicely with Balanced Literacy tasks peppered throughout your literacy blocks:

Daily 5
Balanced Literacy Model
Read to Yourself
SSR (Self-Selected Reading) + 1:1 Conferences
Read to Someone
Buddy Reading with a Choice Menu or Think Dots
Work on Writing
Writing Choice Menu / Journal Response
Listen to Reading
Modeled Reading and/or Listening Center
Spelling/Word Work
Spelling / Word Work

I didn’t set out to implement a true Daily 5 model, but you’ll find, as I did, that the best practices of a Balanced Lit classroom are instructional strategies that should be found in all literacy classrooms: independent reading & writing, shared reading, modeled reading, and word work. Because I’m concerned that the Daily 5 model has the potential to lack rigor, I make sure that most (not all, though) literacy tasks involve a written response, draft, or final product. I keep it simple, though, and it doesn’t involve worksheets!

In a primary classroom, many Balanced Lit teachers follow the structure of the Daily 5 closely during the reading workshop/guided reading portion of the day.  As students get older, though, I think that teachers need to consider modifying the Daily 5 in order to work project based-learning tasks and tasks connected with science and social studies units into the workshop model. 

In my 3rd and 4th grade classrooms, I’ve structured my literacy blocks to include at least three of the “Daily 5” components each day, and multiple “Daily 5” tasks each week. I also incorporate these tasks into homework. The two “Daily 5” components that I make sure are completed every day are the “Read to Self” (aka Self-Selected Reading/SSR) and “Work on Writing.” I believe the single greatest movement in reading levels is directly connected with daily independent reading and writing time. I set aside 35 minutes at the end of the day for SSR/Writing Response time.  During this time, I’m conferencing 1:1 with students or meeting with strategy groups. I also use this time for student-led Book Clubs to meet.

The one “Daily 5” that I do not include as part of workshop rotations is the “Listen to Reading” task. On the high-support end of a Balanced Lit classroom is the “modeled reading” (aka The Read Aloud).  I read aloud and think aloud to my students every day.  By 3rd grade, I have moved the “Listen to Reading” station into my RTI toolkit, and use it as needed. Instead of a “listening station,” I make sure that I have a project-based task as part of the workshop rotation.  This project-based task may be related to a Book Club text, Science or Social Studies unit, or integrated writing & technology project. This task may run from a week to a month in duration.  I create a rubric for these projects and a checklist with mini-due dates to help students manage their time. During 1:1 conferences, I check-in with the progress of the project.

Balanced Literacy empowers teachers to make curriculum choices.  The Daily 5 model will be a good fit for some classrooms and a stepping stone for others.  Use your professional judgment!

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