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Literacy Assessment Principles and Practices:  Avenues for Helping Literacy Learners

This blog was written by NCTE members Scott Filkins, Becky McCraw, and Kathleen Blake Yancey, members of NCTE’s Standing Committee on Assessment. 

Late in the spring of 2018, NCTE asked the three of us to revise the Framing Statements on Assessment. This statement, which dated back to 2004, contained language that was not as meaningful to educators today as it was when originally written. After all, literacy assessment—at all levels, both nationally and locally—has changed in the last 15 years.

In light of these concerns and believing that the document should be revised, the NCTE Executive Committee charged us with that task; they were hoping that we could craft a document that spoke to NCTE members’ values while providing guidance and assistance to them and to other stakeholders in the literacy assessment process, including students, parents, administrators, and community members.

We began the revision process by determining what parts of the original document we needed to keep, bringing to that question perspectives from the contexts within which we each currently work: elementary, high school, and higher ed.  We realized that our settings have unique assessment needs and challenges, but in this document, we also wanted to capture commonalities.

One major commonality was that our literacy assessments, regardless of where they took place, are  always informed by principles; that seemed a good place to begin our revision. Through considerable discussion—in emails, on a Google doc, and through Skype—we identified eight principles of literacy assessment, the first of which is that ”Literacy assessment is a social process, not a technical activity. Accordingly, all student texts are assessed by knowledgeable humans.”

Contrary to some ideas about assessment, this principle demonstrates that like reading and writing, like reviewing films and creating multimodal texts, literacy assessment is a human, social process—and as important, one that we all participate in, and one that can and should support literacy learners.

Related to the principle of literacy assessment as socially embedded practice is our assertion that “literacy assessments are valid only to the extent that they help students learn.” Too often teachers are required to measure or describe some aspect of a student’s literacy performance only to enter the number for a far-away stakeholder. Just as problematically, students might engage in meaningful literacy assessment, but information about their performance is not reported for weeks or months afterward.

Accordingly, we stress the idea that in order for literacy assessment to serve more than a technical purpose, it has to meet at least three conditions: (1) it has to answer meaningful questions that teachers and students themselves have about their literacy development;  (2) its results have to be made available in a timely fashion; so that (3) this information can inform future teaching and learning.

But of course principles and practices are reciprocal; they work in dialogue. Thus, to connect this principle about timeliness of meaningful literacy assessment results to practice, we believed it was important to stress that “Teachers and schools select and create purpose-driven site-specific assessments.”

This is not to say that there is no room for limited, minimally intrusive external assessment, but it is to say that if we expect literacy assessment to be a leverage point for instructional change and student motivation (rather than merely actions of compliance and accountability), assessment design has to be close to the action of learning, just ahead of the introduction of a new concept or during a unit or draft of an essay. Teachers, students, and schools need to be free, and indeed to be trusted, to assess in order to answer the teaching and learning questions of the local classroom and student learning situation.

Additionally, we believed it was crucial that the principles and practices include students as agentive stakeholders in the assessment process. Very often students are unaware of the purpose of assessments or the meaning of assessment data. The principle “Literacy assessment is meaningful to the learner” is reflected in many of the practices this document identifies. We believe that it is particularly important that students receive meaningful feedback that informs and extends learning, and that students take an active and reflective role in the literacy assessment process.

We recognize that the principles articulated in Literacy Assessment: Definitions, Principles, and Practices are not a definitive set of principles, but rather the representation of our collective current thinking on the subject based on experience and research. As you consider and work with these principles and practices, we welcome your feedback, and in the interim, we hope that this effort leads to deeper conversations among all stakeholders on the subject of literacy assessment.

NCTE Standing Committee on Literacy Assessment

CHAIR, Peggy O’Neill (Loyola University, Baltimore, MD)

Scott Filkins (Central High School, Champaign, IL)

Josh Flores (Birmingham, AL)

Bobbie Kabuto (Queens College, Flushing, NY)

Becky McCraw (Goucher Elementary School, Gaffney, SC)

Kathryn Mitchell Pierce (Saint Louis University, MO)

Elisa Waingort (Calgary, Alberta, Canada)

Kathleen Blake Yancey (Florida State University, Tallahassee)