Assessment is, at worst, a highly politicized set of problematic practices which contribute little to the actual teaching process, but upon which peoples educational progress (students) and job security (teachers) are too often based. That's not the assessment we are referring to on this page.

In its best light, assessment is a critical part of the teaching cycle (plan, teach, assess) in that high quality assessment practices can help us to create engaging and effective learning experiences and opportunities for students. The only way to teach in a student's zone of proximal development is to have an assessment practice that helps you to determine where that zone is.

This page has numerous resources for both assessment tools and practices. There is a strong focus on literacy, however, many other areas of the curriculum can be addressed using some of these ideas.

Assessment for Learning

Here is an article that defines assessment for learning (formative assessment).

Assessment of Reading

One of the best ways to assess reading is, of course, to have students read. The running record is a method for systematically recording a student's oral reading and analyzing that student's reading.

Running Record
The above link gives you details on how to do a running record. This is a great one on one assessment form because through it you get a lot of details about a student's reading technique.


The following pdf provides a set of questions to ask about a student's reading. This set of questions includes comprehension and other more global characteristics of reading. See also Comprehension.

Phonemic Awareness

There are many forms of assessment. One challenge to teachers is to identify the specific difficulties students have when reading. Some students may have a high ability to read high-frequency words, for example, but not be able to decode words using phonics. One method to assess the specific phonics abilities is to use the "Names Test" available in the book, Sound Systems, by Anna Lyon and Paula Moore. The benefit of using the names test is that all the names can be read phonetically. The teacher records how the student reads the names, and identifies the phonetic difficulties. When the teacher has evaluated all the students in the class, she can then create reading groups based on the specific needs and interests (ex. consonant blends or titanic) of the students in the classroom. The book provides wonderful guides for record keeping and ongoing assessment.

Various Reading Assessments

Here is a website that has a number of assessments for things such as alphabet knowledge, sight words, etc.
Another great resource--has videos of assessments being used.

Classroom Management and Assessment

Assessing reading involves working individually with each student. While it seems overwhelming to do this with 25 students in the room, doing this is the only way to really know what is going on with a student in his or her reading practice, since language use is a highly personal issue.

For many reasons, it is important to teach students to work independently while you are interacting with a single student or a small group. Once you teach the procedures for working independently, which include techniques for staying focused, what to do when you have a question, what to do when finished, and so forth, you will be able to spend some time with each student individually. If you manage five students per day, in a little over a week you will have given a thorough, systematic, and reasonable assessment for your whole class.

Remember that one room schoolhouse teachers had to do this in order to get students in grades 1-8 to learn. Even very young children are capable of learning how to work independently.

Of course, once you assess, then the next step is to instruct.

Assessment of Writing

When we think of assessing writing, we may think of the old red pen and mysterious markings such as "awk" in the margin.

First off, the purpose of assessing writing is to help students become stronger writers. But assessment has to be done with the understanding of the writing process as well as the understanding that meaning counts more than conventionality.

Writing is fundamentally a meaning-making act. There are some students who can write the typical five paragraph essay as a writing exercise, using a topic given by a teacher or a test. Other students have a harder time doing the writing exercise approach--that is, the equivalent of doing scales and etudes in music. As teachers, we will be more successful if we have students do meaningful writing for a real purpose because more students can succeed at that and because this is the type of writing adulthood demands.

Having students write for audiences other than ourselves as teachers puts us in the position of being advocates instead of judges. I have taught a lot of grammar while helping students draft cover letters and resumes for job applications. At that point, the conventions of writing become important to the student and I am able to help them with their specific issues.
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Writing Assessment Resources

Assessment as Reverse Engineering

Reverse engineering is a process of taking an item and figuring out how it was made. There are two types: white box reverse engineering where you take apart the item in question and use that information as part of the figuring out process, and black box reverse engineering where you cannot take the item apart and you have to guess its components based on how it functions. If you have ever taken apart a clock or appliance as a kid, that is white box reverse engineering--or it could be, if you used the information you found so you could create your own clock.

Obviously, we cannot open our students' skulls up to find out what is inside, so we use the black box form of reverse engineering in teaching.

Students create things. For example, when I did Carnival poetry where you get to break the rules, based on the rules students mentioned in our initial discussion and the rules they chose to break as they created their poems, I can reverse engineer to figure out their schemas about poetry. Here are the rules of poetry that came up in our discussion:

Carnivale includes breaking the rules. Here are the poetry rules we can break in writing Carnivale poems:
It has to rhyme
Stanzas consistent in length
Has to be about a coherent topic
Has to have metrical patterns
Has to have metaphors
Deep philosophical meaning
Poetic devices

Based on this list, I can infer that as a group my students know something about poetic form (stanzas); something about poetic devices such as rhyme, meter and metaphors; and something about how poems make meaning. I also know from reverse engineering this list that students' definition of poetry may be too rigid because of the rules about stanzas and rhyming. I know from the way in which they discussed "deep philosophical meaning" that they feel intimidated by poetry.

From reverse engineering this list, I have the possibility of creating some learning experiences that add to students' knowledge in critical ways and that also give students successful experiences with reading and writing poetry so their level of intimidation decreases.

At the point, it would be good to quote from a FAQ about reverse engineering in relation to objects and computer programs:

Question: What are the different uses of reverse engineering?
Answer: A common misperception regarding reverse engineering is that it is used for the sake of stealing or copying someone else's work. Reverse engineering is not only used to figure out how something works, but also the ways in which it does not work.
Some examples of the different uses of reverse engineering include:

  • Understanding how a product works more comprehensively than by merely observing it
  • Investigating and correcting errors and limitations in existing programs
  • Studying the design principles of a product as part of an education in engineering
  • Making products and systems compatible so they can work together or share data
  • Evaluating one's own product to understand its limitations
  • Determining whether someone else has literally copied elements of one's own technology
  • Creating documentation for the operation of a product whose manufacturer is unresponsive to customer service requests
  • Transforming obsolete products into useful ones by adapting them to new systems and platforms

If we bring these items into the world of assessment, we get:

  • Understand what a student knows more comprehensively than by merely observing him or her
  • Investigating and correcting errors and limitations the student might have (we would tend to be more positive in wording this, but the point here is to see the analogy between reverse engineering in technology and reverse engineering in education)
  • Studying how students learn as a part of the pre-service teacher program (What Difference Does Instruction Make project)
  • Helping students work constructively together
  • Evaluating one's own teaching to understand its strengths and limitations

Reverse engineering's advantage as a way of thinking about assessment is that it gets us beyond the idea of tests and into the idea that we can analyze anything a student puts out and make some conclusions about what that student understands. In this way, any student artifact becomes a data source and we do not have to subject students to artificial forms of assessment.

Finally, the idea of teacher as engineer suggests that the teacher is a highly skilled person who can think through what is going on in the classroom with each student and put together learning experiences that benefit students individually and as a whole. This moves way away from scripted teaching which places the teacher in the position of technician (or robot).

Troubleshooting the Reading Process

There are lots of ways of looking at helping struggling readers, but I am a techie, so I'm going to take a techie look at it. Reading is a complex process, but we do have good models of it and with a good model, it should be possible to figure out where problems are and then to solve them. So, I'm going to take a ten-part troubleshooting process and go through a reading model with it. Using something outside the field of reading may help us to see the field of reading differently and to understand our students differently, possibly increasing our ability to help them.


The first step in the troubleshooting process is to have the attitude that this problem can be fixed. Which is to say, my student is capable of learning and I am capable of teaching. If you don't believe a student can learn, you won't teach that student.

The research paper above suggests that the one-celled animal, the paramecium, can learn. If a one-celled organism with only a little nucleus for brain power can learn, then any multi-cellular organism with a multi-cell brain sitting in front of us is also capable of learning.

What is often at issue is what to teach. We don't know what to teach, and as a result, we don't teach the right thing, the student fails to learn and the teacher fails to teach. The purpose of troubleshooting is to narrow the problem down as much as possible so that any intervention has the strong possibility of being the right one or else of yielding critical information to allow you to choose the right intervention.

Past failures can give us a negative attitude about future possibilities. But since you are reading this approach to helping students read, how about if you assume that after you read this, you will be able to teach any student because you will know how to diagnose the problems and address them.

Another attitudinal issue to watch for is the state of your emotions. If you are angry or upset, that is not a time to interact with a student, particularly a student who is struggling. Emotions strongly influence the learning process and negative emotions influence it negatively. Struggling students do not need additional emotional burdens between themselves and learning.

For a little attitudinal inspiration, read: This is troubleshooting related to computers, but there are many parallels between getting a computer system to work and getting a kid to be successful in reading.

Damage Control Plan

Damage control??? How does this apply?

Today I read that a youngster wanted to check out a chapter book from the school library, but because he had dyslexia, his teacher wouldn't let him. This is the kind of damage I am talking about--the damage that comes about when a person in authority suggests that a student is incapable of learning or that a student is stupid.

Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath:
Basically, they promise not to harm their patients. As teachers, we need to use damage control to avoid making a reading problem worse by causing a student to feel shame for something that is not his or her fault.

Children of the Code cites the serious psychological fallout from shame:
If we cannot help, let's still try to avoid hurting kids. It's easy to do accidentally, so damage control requires vigilance and a willingness to take responsibility for the problem.

Get the Symptom Description

What is going on with the student? How do you know there are problems? How do those problems manifest themselves? The more specific you can be, the better chance you have of creating an appropriate intervention.
This is where assessment comes in--real assessment, not just a reading test that tells you there is a problem somewhere.
What happens when you use a running record--what types of mistakes does the student make?What happens when you ask the student to read something silently and then tell you about it?Are there physical issues apparent, such as the student holding the text very close to the eyes?
Are there processing issues, such as the student mixing up the order of letters or numbers?Does the student know all the letters? Are there phonological problems? Are there issues with word recognition?
Are there problems with vocabulary or unfamiliar grammatical structures? Can the student read the text out loud yet still not understand what it means? Does the student have the background knowledge necessary for understanding the text? Are there genre issues, such as not being familiar with a particular genre? Are there attitudinal issues such as learned helplessness? How does the student feel about reading? How does the student feel about the particular text(s) he or she is being asked to read?What is the family's attitude about reading?
These are just some of the questions you can ask yourself about the student. As you can guess, the answers to each question will be critical to figuring out how to help the student.

Reproduce the Problem

In the techie world, an intermittent problem is the worst thing to try to solve. When you have a short in the electrical system of your car and it just sometimes does something weird, it is very hard to trace down the source of the problem.

The same is true with reading, to a certain extent. For example, if a student has trouble reading in one classroom setting, but the reading "problem" does not exist in another classroom setting, then you probably are not dealing with a reading problem per se. There are other things you should look into. The Comprehension Flow Chart on the Comprehension page can provide some guidance.

If at all possible, then, observe the student reading both out loud and silently and see what is going on.

When students fail, they tend to get defensive (as all of us do) and they may be reluctant to demonstrate their reading problem. You might want to talk to the student about the troubleshooting process and how we (you and the student) are scientists trying to figure out where the trouble is so we can fix it. It may be that if you share the troubleshooting process with the student and take a more dispassionate stance that is based on finding the problem and figuring out how to deal with it instead of on how the student "ought" to have learned this or that, the student may be more willing to talk about what is hard and to give you more information on the nature of their struggles.

Do the Appropriate Corrective Maintenance

This sounds like something that cannot be applied to reading--that it is something you do with computers like doing a virus scan to make sure a virus is not a problem or checking to see if the machine is plugged in appropriately and all switches are on.
Yet, let's get a little more creative here.
There are lots of things we assume kids have been taught. For example, there are two different types of the letter a. One is "a" and the other is:

We assume that kids get this difference more or less by osmosis, but some kids won't. So, we need to check for basic understandings, such as making sure the student knows the letters, knows sounds, knows the basics of sounding out words, and all the stuff we assume has been taught but somehow has not been learned by this particular student. This is not something to blame on the student--it is something that the student missed out on somewhere and if we just teach it without making a big deal out of it, then the student will learn it and hopefully a significant portion of the student's problem has been solved. Make sure the student can hear the differences in sounds between letters that sound close such as b and p or m and n--because sometimes people have never thought about those differences. Listen to the student's speech because either dialect or speech impediments can lead to misunderstandings, particularly when teaching materials are in academic English and the student's primary language is a dialect outside of academic English. Also listen carefully to what the student says to see if there are any schemas the student has that are misleading. An example in music was a student who thought that it wasn't the notehead that determined the pitch but the other end of the note (stem end). It's hard to know how the student developed this idea, but it needed to be cleared up. Clearing up a basic problem like that can clear up the whole reading issue sometimes.

It might be instructive to read what these folks say about computer maintenance, because it might joggle something in your mind to check on with a student. Remember that we take an awful lot for granted in thinking about what kids know and understand.

Narrow it down to the root cause

This is a key step in the troubleshooting process--it is important to eliminate possibilities as well as to keep assessing until you find what is going on.

It might help to think about some of the steps in reading, in terms of how the human brain works. We first look at a text--and if we have problems with our ability to see, that can stop the reading process right there.

Next we process what we see in multiple ways. So we need to be aware of these ways of processing and to pay attention to how that processing is happening. It's helpful to think of a person's senses as "channels." Different people have different affinities for channels. Some people use their eyes more than their ears and vice versa for other people. For some people, some channels are more scrambled than other channels. If the visual channel gets scrambled, you may want to give the student different types of reading aids--a piece of paper to put under the line being read or even a card with a rectangular hole in it so the student can visually isolate words. Larger type might help and also you might explore different colors of background vs. text on the computer to see if something like that is helpful.

Background information is critical for comprehension, so if a student is having a hard time comprehending something, try out a text that is about something the student is interested in or knows a lot about to see if background knowledge is an issue.
Another root cause of reading problems can be learned helplessness. Students feel they are going to fail, so they don't even try. Or they wait for someone else to read the word so they won't have to. Or they act out so they don't have to read. In this situation, you need to work on motivation by using texts that don't look like texts. Websites about the student's personal interests can be really helpful because a lot of web sites have a manageable amount of text.


Teach the thing that needs to be taught, help the student practice whatever needs to be practiced, readjust what needs to be readjusted.


Assess again. Did you solve the problem? Yes? Celebrate with your student. No? You know what to do...

Take Pride

The troubleshooters say:
"The other steps fixed the problem. This step keeps YOU in shape. Troubleshooting is an intense mental effort, and must be done unemotionally. You can't keep that up for long without a break. So after each solution, take pride in your solution."
When you acknowledge to yourself that you were successfully able to troubleshoot the reading process with a student, then pat yourself on the back for effective leadership in this instance.

One important thing that the troubleshooters say is that this process is unemotional. This is a systematic way of tracing down a problem. In this process there is no room for blame--there is no time or mental energy for unproductive thinking. If you take a systematic approach to the problem and teach the student how to do the same, and if you model a focus on the problem dispassionately with the intent of fixing it, you will save the student a lot of the shame that is so damagine. You will also be teaching the student an effective way to solve problems in the future, whether literacy-related or not.

Prevent Future Occurrences of the Problem

To a certain extent you can't do this because each kid is unique and has a different set of schemas and a different way of understanding things such as literacy. On the other hand, if a student is struggling because of not understanding something fairly simple, it would be a good idea to teach that thing to all students directly in order to prevent future problems.


Troubleshooting the Writing Process


Writing is fundamentally a meaning making process. When we reject student writing, it feels to them as if we are rejecting them. So the most constructive attitude we can have is to think of ourselves as advocates for students. As advocates, we are doing everything we can to help the student be able to use writing for his or her own purposes. The ability to write well opens doors, particularly with the instant publication of the internet. The ability to write well allows us to have influence on the ideas of other people. Our job as teachers is to open the writing door for our students. In this vein, our assumption should be that everyone is capable of using writing as a means of communicating.

Along with being sure that students are capable of learning, we should realize that we are capable of figuring out the problem and teaching. After all, many of us are not professional writers, but all of us have used writing for many different purposes. We have been through all sorts of writing processes. Most importantly, we have struggled with writing in one way or maybe a lot of ways. Remembering our struggles helps us to teach.

Damage Control Plan

Back in the 1960s there was a novel called Up the Down Staircase. It took place in an urban school where many of the teachers were burned out, and the story is told via the memos and letters a new teacher gets in her mailbox. Anyway, the central event in the book was the suicide of a student. It turns out she had written a love letter to her English teacher and his response was to pull out the red pen and correct it. He didn't have a damage control plan.

Get the Symptoms

One advantage to having kids write in the classroom instead of at home is that you can really see how they approach the entire writing process. This allows you to get the symptoms of the struggle for the writer. For example, some people struggle at the level of getting an idea. Some people struggle with perfectionism. Some people have such a hard time with the physical demands of writing that they can't even begin to think of meaning making.

In the interest of thinking through symptoms, the following are some case studies of writers I know and/or have helped.

J. has dyslexia and has had it all his life. Although he is engaging and interesting, clearly smart, when he talks, his writing is minimal. His spelling is atrocious, as is his handwriting. He does not write very much. The problem here is that the actual process of dealing with the physical demands of writing are getting in the way of J. expressing his ideas. The solution in this case is a software program called Dragon Speaking Naturally. With this program, he can dictate a text to the computer and then he can edit that text.

G. considers herself a writer but she has a hard time sitting down and actually writing. Her symptoms: always an excuse instead of a piece of writing, perfectionism, and a resulting frustration with herself. The solution here is to ask G. to write one page a day of just anything, even garbage. The result in real life was that she wrote every single day for a month and on many days she wrote more than just a page a day. In thirty days she produced 90 pages of writing.

M. is working on a dissertation, but she is in deep trouble with her dissertation committee because of her writing problems; she could fail over this. Her writing about her research project meanders and is not well-organized. The solution here is twofold: help M. understand the nature of her task and help her put signposts for readers in her text. The nature of the task: the problem with a dissertation is that it is a multi-faceted, complex project that has to be translated into a single, linear text. I use the analogy of a forest. The research project is a forest and the dissertation is the trail through the forest that allows the reader to understand the features and nature of the forest. Thinking in these terms allows M. an opportunity to back up from her research project to think about the needs of the reader for an organized approach. Secondly, we inserted statements that told the reader what to anticipate in chapters and sections. She passed.

J. is petrified of messing up. He has had negative experiences with writing because he is not a good speller and not strong in grammar. At the same time, he is a very creative person. But when he is asked to write, he reaches a block quickly because he is so fearful. The solution here is to invite J. to write in the worst way possible--to try to mess up and to break the rules of writing. This helps in a two-fold way. First of all, it rids him of his fear because he is supposed to mess up. Secondly, it is fun and makes writing a more desirable thing to do.

C. writes research papers, but her writing is frequently muddled. She does things in a very intuitive way but has a hard time articulating what she is doing, which makes it hard for her to write clearly. She also has a hard time with systematic, logical thought. The solution is to work on even verbal articulation of her ideas and also to work on forms of logical thought. Feedback in the form of questions which ask her to fill in the intuitive leaps helps here.

R.'s writing is very ordinary--she does not seem to find original thoughts to engage with. She is into conformity with her peers and afraid to get too far away from what the other students are doing. The solution here was to encourage freewriting and then to show her how the crazy ideas at the end of her freewriting have the most value. In this case, the ideas were like a metaphysical poem (yoking together of two disparate ideas) and she drafted a metaphysical poem based on the interesting ideas she had come up with, after this concept was explained to her.

The struggles above represent different aspects of the writing process and are far more significant than struggles with grammar or spelling. If the only problem is grammar or spelling, then the student needs to learn how to edit by editing other people's writing.

Reproduce the Problem

You are more likely to do this when the writing process takes place in front of you. This is why it is important to have students write in class. If there are issues of structure and organization, when you intervene during the process, they tend to be grateful. When they feel a piece is "done" because they are handing it in to you, then whatever feedback you give is likely not going to be used because the feedback was given too late in the writing process.

We want students to be able to write on their own at home, but sending them home with a writing assignment without some in-class scaffolding of the writing process is likely to be a setup for failure. The other problem can be the "helpful" parent. When students write in class, you can be assured that you are seeing what they are doing, not what their parents can do. Also, if they are writing with pencil and paper in a classroom and have no access to computers, they have a really tough time copying and pasting other people's texts.

Do the Appropriate Corrective Maintenance

One item under here is for students to understand the writing process. During drafting, students should not be worrying about wording, spelling, or grammar, particularly if the ideas they are working on are difficult to articulate. Instead, they should be focusing on getting a text down on the page so the ideas are visible. Only when ideas are visible can they be edited, reworded, reorganized, etc. So, the first goal is getting something on the page, even if it is bad. I would say that a lot of people struggle with writing because they focus on the end process (surface level editing issues) instead of meaning. Meaning first. Then editing. I tell people to write it badly--it's their job to get the ideas on paper and my job to make them beautiful. The same thing applies in class--students need to get their ideas on the page before crafting their writing.

Narrow It Down to the Root Cause

Is the problem at the level of ideas?
Register of language?
Word use?
Getting started?
Keeping going?


A writer may have several issues going on, but when you are troubleshooting the process, choose the most significant issue to work with first. In other words, if a student struggles to get anything on the page and whatever he gets on the page has a lot of mistakes in it, the first thing to work on is getting words on the page. Consider that the physical process of writing (by hand or typing) is the least important aspect of writing. The most important is meaning making and honing that meaning. So, have the student dictate the text (Dragon Speaking Naturally) and work on pulling ideas out of the student's brain and into language. Later you can work on surface features. Meaning first. Editing last.

Another frequent problem is with organization. It can be helpful to take a text and cut out its paragraphs and/or sentences (depending on length) and then play with those little pieces of paper. Being able to reorganize a text is an abstract task. If you make it concrete, it will become more possible for students to do.


Did it work?

Take Pride

If you are helping students to improve their ability to communicate using the written word, you are empowering them for the rest of their lives to be able to have influence. This is an important aspect of teaching and yet it is also an art, to be able to help students in an encouraging way. If your students are getting better at writing, you are doing something major. Pat yourself on the back.

Prevent Future Occurrences of the Problem

One of the biggest sources of writer's block is perfectionism. Yet this can be prevented if we really understand the writing process and don't focus on surface features at the expense of meaning. When people have fear, they have a difficult time expressing themselves, particularly in a semi-permanent way. When we speak, our words disappear. When we write, they are potentially there forever and that is intimidating. Written words can be used against the author. These are the fears we have just as a natural part of writing. Add to that the fear of doing something wrong on the first draft and you have the perfect recipe for teaching a student how not to write.

Discussion Post for Troubleshooting

How would you troubleshoot problems in music performance and/or learning?

Self Assessment

The Kruger Dunning effect suggests that when we are new to doing something and/or don't know much about it, we are apt to overestimate our abilities in that area. Oddly enough, people who are experts tend to underestimate their abilities in the area of their expertise. Here is a paper where Kruger and Dunning present their research. The implication of this work is that people who are self assessing also need outside feedback from caring professionals.