5. Assessment must recognize and reflect the intellectually and socially complex nature of reading and writing and the important roles of school, home, and society in literacy development.
Literacy is complex, social, and constantly changing. The literacies of students graduating from high school today were barely imaginable when they began their schooling. Outside of school, students live and will go on to work in a media culture with practices unlike those currently occurring in school (even in the setting of the school media center). Students need to acquire competencies with word processors, blogs, wikis, Web browsers, instant messaging, listservs, bulletin boards, virtual worlds, video editors, presentation software, and many other literate tools and practices. Traditional, simple definitions of literacy will not help prepare students for the literate lives of the present—let alone the future. Consequently, reading and writing cannot usefully be assessed as a set of isolated, independent tasks or events. It is critical to gather specific information about materials, tasks, and media being used with students for both instructional and assessment purposes. In addition, we need to assess how practices are used to participate in the broader media culture as well as to examine how the broader culture assigns status to some practices over others (e.g., texting as contrasted to writing paragraph summaries in language arts class).
Whatever the medium, literacy is social and involves negotiations among authors and readers around meanings, purposes, and contexts. Literate practices are now rarely solitary cognitive acts. Furthermore, literate practices differ across social and cultural contexts and across different media. Students’ behavior in one setting may not be at all representative of their behavior in another. This may be particularly true of English-language learners who may lack the fluency to express themselves fully inside the classroom but may be lively contributors in their families and communities.
In school settings, instruction and assessment should be seen as highly interactive processes. For example, aspects of the learning situation interact with cultural and home environments to influence student learning and motivation. These social situations shape purposes for both teachers and students, influence the conditions and constraints present in the learning context, and affect students’ motivation to engage in reading and writing activities. In the social context of schooling, many factors influence learning and performance. These include types of activities, management efficiency, grouping patterns, teacher and student expectations and beliefs, classroom interactions, and the classroom environment. In addition, factors associated with teaching, such as content, tasks, and materials, all affect literacy learning.
The quality and appropriateness of assessment efforts depend to a considerable extent on the degree to which these complexities have been considered. The quality of an assessment will be low if it yields an incomplete or distorted picture of a student’s literacy. Characteristics of the text, the task, the situation, and the purpose can all have an impact on the student’s performance, and only some aspects of reading and writing will be captured in any given assessment situation. Formal tests need to be considerably more complex than is generally true today. Tests that accommodate multiple responses, different types of texts and tasks, and indicators of attitude and motivation are all essential to a comprehensive view of literacy achievement. Wherever possible, assessments must specify the types of texts, tasks, and situations used for assessment purposes and note whether and when students’ performance was improved by variations in text quality, type of task, or situation.
In order to meet this standard, we must depend less on one-shot assessment practices and place more value on assessments of ongoing classroom performance, assuming that classroom curricula develop the full complexity of literate learning. Finally, when assessment information is interpreted and reported, descriptive information about the assessment tasks and texts and the instructional situation should be included. Given the complexity of the tasks involved, reducing reading and writing performance to a letter or number grade is unacceptable.