Tuesday, August 17, 2010

ATI Develops New Technological Capabilities to Assess Literacy in Early Childhood

During the period from early childhood to third grade, children are developing the skills necessary to become successful readers such as an awareness of how the sounds in spoken language correspond to written language. As children progress to fourth grade and beyond, their ability to successfully read and comprehend text becomes critical for learning in other domains like math, science, and social studies. Unfortunately, although literacy is a major focus of early childhood education, not all children become successful readers. According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), one in three fourth-graders nationwide cannot read above a basic level.

Over the last decade, childhood literacy has become an important topic on a national and state level. In 1997 and 2002, Congress convened two national panels (the National Reading Panel and the National Early Literacy Panel) to provide research-based recommendations on how to improve reading achievement in early childhood. The reports issued by these panels are available at www.nationalreadingpanel.org and www.nifl.gov. Individual states are also implementing initiatives related to early childhood literacy. For example, Arizona recently passed a bill which calls upon a statewide task force to provide recommendations for a set of statewide assessments to measure students’ reading abilities in grades one and two. The bill also requires school districts to screen students in preschool through second grade for reading deficiencies, providing an opportunity for early intervention during this critical time period. Along with these evaluations, the bill requires that students reading far below grade level at the end of third grade are not promoted to fourth grade. Retained students must be provided with targeted intervention such as summer school reading instruction, online reading instruction, a different reading teacher, or intensive reading instruction during the next academic year.

To support national and state early childhood literacy initiatives, ATI has been working to develop a set of assessments targeting the critical aspects of reading for grades K through three. By providing valid, reliable, standards aligned assessments, ATI can assist districts and schools by identifying students with reading deficiencies and suggesting appropriate areas for intervention. ATI also supports targeted interventions and online reading instruction through Instructional Dialogs and other intervention materials that allow students to practice early literacy skills. Assessing the early literacy skills of very young children presents some unique challenges. For example, many standards related to early literacy are not best assessed using a standard text-only, multiple-choice item. In addition, very young children often cannot read even simple text. For these reasons, the development of new technological capabilities and innovative item types has been an important part of ATI’s work.

One new and exciting technological capability developed by ATI for these assessments is the ability to include audio material in items. The audio capability makes it possible to create computer-administered items for children who are not yet able to read. Instead of the teacher reading the item aloud, the child can listen to pre-recorded instructions, questions, and answer choices. This capability enables a more standardized presentation of items and makes the assessment easier to administer. In addition, the audio capability allows the direct assessment of standards that address the awareness or manipulation of the sounds in spoken language (phonemic awareness) without teacher involvement.

Another newly developed ATI technological capability is the ability to present text for a predetermined time period. This capability has been crucial to the development of a new innovative item type designed to assess reading fluency (a concept related to reading rate). Previously, assessment options for reading fluency were limited to one-on-one testing and scoring procedures requiring subjective judgment. This new capability represents a major advance in ATI’s coverage of early childhood standards by enabling online assessment of reading fluency and automated scoring.

Two more technological capabilities have been developed by ATI to tailor the assessment process for very young children. First, to keep children engaged and to encourage them to progress through the assessment, visually engaging scenes have been developed that slowly appear piece by piece as a reward after each question is answered. Second, the new assessments and item types have been designed to be compatible with portable tablet computers that employ touch screen technology as well as standard desktop computers. By facilitating the assessment of young children, these new technological capabilities developed by ATI will support districts and schools in implementing literacy assessments and interventions in early childhood.

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