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Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing: Standard 4

4. Assessment must reflect and allow for critical inquiry into curriculum and instruction.

Sound educational practices start with a curriculum that values complex literacy, instructional practices that nurture it, and assessments that fully reflect it. In order for assessment to allow productive inquiry into curriculum and instruction, it must reflect the complexity of that curriculum as well as the instructional practices in schools. This is particularly important because assessment shapes teaching, learning, and policy. Assessment that reflects an impoverished view of literacy will result in a diminished curriculum and distorted instruction and will not enable productive problem solving or instructional improvement. Because assessment shapes instruction, the higher the stakes of the assessment, the more important it is that it reflect this full complexity.

Critical inquiry into curriculum, instruction, and assessment is important at all levels. Policymakers, no less than teachers and students, must have clear understandings of the curriculum and instructional practices in order to make informed decisions. Decisions based on severely restricted or distorted information or on unexamined assumptions will be poor decisions.

Two major problems beset efforts to inquire into curriculum, instruction, and assessment. The first is that reading and writing standards guiding curricula in many districts often fragment literacy rather than represent its complexity. They also frequently omit important aspects of literacy such as self-initiated learning, questioning author’s bias, perspective taking, multiple literacies, social interactions around literacy, metacognitive strategies, and literacy dispositions. Furthermore, even when the standards come closer to representing these features of complex literacy, high-stakes assessments rarely address the difficult-to-measure standards, opting instead to focus on content that is easier and more expedient to assess using inexpensive test formats. For example, teachers who emphasize the clarity of writing, attention to audience, vibrant language, revision, and sound support of assertions advocated in many content standards rarely find such qualities fully reflected in high-stakes tests, or they find these standards assessed through items that focus on mechanics or conventions. Similarly, students who are urged in classroom instruction to form opinions and back them up need to be assessed accordingly, rather than with tests that do not allow for creative or divergent thinking.

A second, related problem is the power of assessments to shape instruction (see standard 7). Pressure associated with high-stakes tests as well as some forms of progress monitoring have focused attention on implementing specific curriculum programs, interven-tions, or approaches to instruction. Instructional practices such as providing additional support for students who perform just below cut scores (“bubble kids”), but not for those significantly below, or efforts to increase reading rate without regard for comprehension, should be questioned. Other measures of opportunity to learn, such as teachers’ access to ongoing professional development and the availability of resources to connect schools to local communities, must also be considered.

Policymakers and administrators, no less than teachers and students, have a responsibility to understand the complexities and importance of a full and critical literacy and the nature of instruction that will foster it. They must recognize that tests, although sometimes necessary, are often not the best assessment procedures for capturing the subtleties of teaching and learning. They must recognize test results for what they obscure or fail to assess as well as for what they reveal. In the public interest, they must not endow test scores with the power to tell more than they are able. Hundreds of studies have shown that nonschool factors, such as parents’ education level or socioeconomic status, have a greater effect on student achievement than do school factors. Tests that do not adequately reflect a complex model of literacy send a misleading message to teachers and students about the kinds of reading and writing that are valued by society.

In sum, without critical inquiry into the link between specific assessments and curricula, it is difficult to know whether an assessment provides a full representation of literacy or even represents a valid measure of the standards it is intended to represent.

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A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts