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Do's and Don'ts for Administering Standardized Reading Tests

by Jane M. Schierloh

Are you giving the TABE, the ABLE, or some other standardized reading test to your new students? Here are some important things to keep in mind.

Don't... give students a standardized reading test on their first day of class.

Why not? First of all, new students are usually nervous. They are in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. Second, coming back to school may have been a difficult step for them to take. And third, taking formal tests makes many people extremely anxious. Nervousness or anxiety can interfere with students' reading and thinking processes and result in scores that are artificially low. The cumulative effect of all this stress may be overwhelming for some students. Their first day of class may be their last day.

Another reason for delaying testing is that adults who have not been in school for many years may be out of practice in taking tests. Older students may never have taken standardized tests before. Standardized reading tests assume that test-takers have some basic test-taking knowledge, and, in fact, research studies have shown that test-taking skills do influence scores. In other words, those who know the "rules of the game" generally achieve higher scores.

Since you want to know how well your new students can read, not how test-wise they are, consider waiting a few days (or even a few weeks) before administering a standardized reading test. Your students will feel more relaxed and will be able to concentrate better on the tasks posed by the test. In addition, if you have given them some test-like materials to work on, they will understand better what they are expected to do and their scores will be more representative of their current abilities.

You are probably asking, "If I delay giving my new students a test, how will I determine their reading levels so that I can put them in appropriate reading materials?" One quick, easy, and effective way is to use sample passages from the reading materials you use in class. If you are an experienced teacher, you know what an easy, moderate, or GED-level passage looks like. If you are a new teacher, you can rely on the publishers' estimates. Start students with a very easy passage, or, if you have reason to think that they may not be beginning readers, show them several passages of varying difficulty and ask, "Which one looks like something you could read comfortably?"

Before students read the passage they have selected, remind them to think about what they are reading because you are going to ask them to tell you about what they have read. Give students the choice of reading orally or silently.

After they have read the passage, ask, "What was this about?" "What else do you remember?" As you listen to the retelling, decide whether it is excellent, adequate, or poor. Students might also write about what they have read to provide a sample of their writing ability. This informal evaluation can be presented as students' first class assignment.

Do... give the appropriate level of the test.

Standardized reading tests are not "one-size-fits-all." Scores may be meaningless unless students are given the appropriate level of the test.

What will happen if you give students a test level that is too difficult for them? Let's suppose that John, who reads at about fourth grade level, is given TABE-Level D (grade levels 7-9). Even its easiest items are too difficult for him, and he receives a grade level score of 2.5, which is at the bottom of the range of possible scores. Consequently, you incorrectly assume that John is a beginning reader.

What will happen if you give students tests that are too easy for them? Let's say that Pam can read comfortably at the sixth grade level, but you give her a TABE-Level E (0-4). She gets almost all the items correct and registers a grade level equivalent score of 10.0, at the top of the range of possible scores. You place her in GED® prep materials, and to your surprise, she has a great deal of difficulty.

How can you avoid these unfortunate mistakes? One way is to use the locator test published by the test-maker for this purpose. A better way is to delay testing until you are familiar with students' reading skills and can judge for yourself which level will probably be a good fit. Most important of all, watch out for scores at the extreme ends of the range of possible scores. Remember that such scores are especially suspect.

Do...use the time limits given in the test manual.

Many teachers who give a reading test as a part of their intake process decide to give tests without time limits fearing that a timed test will intimidate new students. Their fears are warranted! However, giving untimed standardized tests results in meaningless scores. The word standardized refers to the standards for giving these tests. The scores are only meaningful if all test-takers take the test under the same conditions -- the same directions and the same amount of time to complete the test. If you are concerned about frustrating students by giving them a timed test, explain to students the reason for the time limits, tell them that many students do not complete the entire test, and assure them that this test is not the only way you will evaluate their reading skills. Their class work is better evidence of their reading proficiency.

Do... allow students to write their answers on their test booklets (unless you are certain they can use answer sheets accurately).

You know what can happen if test-takers' eyes play tricks on them, and they inadvertently mark answers on the wrong places on the answer sheets -- Question 8 in the test booklet but Question 9 on the answer sheet. Some students simply cannot track back and forth accurately. Although it is expensive to allow these students to write in test booklets, it is the only way to avoid this sort of problem.

In summary, to get the most accurate measurement that standardized reading tests can provide, remember these points:

  1. Avoid giving such tests to new students on their first day of class.
  2. Give the appropriate level of the test and beware of scores at the extreme high or low end of the range.
  3. Use the time limits given in the test manual.
  4. Let students write in the test booklets (especially if they have a history of vision or perception problems).

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