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Why Good Readers May Have Low Test Scores

The complexity of skills assessed by standardized reading tests may account for the disparity between some children's reading ability and their test scores.



Many Tulsa parents of school-age students are perplexed when they view their children’s standardized reading test scores. They are also concerned about why their children aren’t making better grades in reading. I know this, because I’m a third-grade teacher. Parents contact me about these concerns every school year. They explain to me how well the children read at home. These students may also successfully complete common online tests such as Reading Counts or Accelerated Reader. Parents insist that their children are excellent readers, and they are often correct. The child is reading at a good speed, and she can answer questions about what she reads. Why don’t the test scores and grades reflect this? I’m going to attempt to answer these questions for you now.

The MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) and the Oklahoma School Testing Program (OSTP) assess some very complex reading skills. Speed and answering simple comprehension questions have very little to do with the way reading skills are assessed, so it is important to understand what skills are actually being tested in order for parents to support their children.

One of the most important reading skills that students need to master is identifying the main idea of a passage. Students are expected to distinguish between the main idea and the supporting details of a paragraph. Children need considerable practice with this before it is mastered. They are also expected to determine the main idea of a story. This is often the lesson learned or the moral of the story. This doesn’t come easily to school-age children. Parents could help students by reading fables together and discussing the morals. For example, the popular fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare” teaches the moral, “slow and steady wins the race.”

 Another extremely important skill to master is that of summarizing. Children may be given a choice of four possible summaries, and asked to choose the best. This is also a skill not easily mastered by school-age children. In fact, I’ve seen a number of these questions that I believe would cause many adults to struggle.

"The MAP (Measure of Academic Progress) and the Oklahoma School Testing Program (OSTP) assess some very complex reading skills. Speed and answering simple comprehension questions have very little to do with the way reading skills are assessed." 

Students also must be able to compare and contrast texts. They will be given two texts to read. Often, a fiction text will be paired with a nonfiction text about the same topic. Students will be asked to make comparisons, and to contrast the two passages. They are expected to recognize how the texts are similar and different.

One skill that is often troublesome for students is determining cause and effect. Young children have difficulty determining one from the other. I try to teach my students that the cause always has to happen first. Then, they will run into a sentence like, “I got drenched, because it was raining.” The cause is the rain, but it doesn’t come first in the sentence. This can confuse our students. It may seem simple to adults, but it is problematic for young children.

Students are also tested on their knowledge of figurative language. Students must identify and distinguish between idioms, alliteration, hyperbole, personification, similes, metaphors and onomatopoeias.

In addition, test questions will determine whether students can differentiate between different genres. This is much more complicated than determining whether a text is fiction or nonfiction. Children are expected to identify, and distinguish between realistic fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, biography, autobiography, fable, legend, myth, tall tale, fairy tale, and more.

Reading tests will check for knowledge of grammar. Students must distinguish between declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory sentences. Students don’t just need to know that a noun is a person, place or thing. They need to be familiar with common nouns, proper nouns, pronouns, plural nouns, possessive nouns, and abstract nouns, for starters. Verbs are not just action words. There are also auxiliary verbs. By fifth grade, students will need to master simple, perfect, and progressive verb tenses. There are descriptive adjectives, quantitative adjectives, possessive noun adjectives, possessive pronoun adjectives, and article adjectives, to name a few. Prepositional phrases, prepositions, objects, conjunctions, and interjections are all included on third-grade tests. By fifth grade, children need to understand correlative, coordinating, and subordinating conjunctions.

 Students also are tested on how well they can make inferences and draw conclusions. They need to be able to figure things out that they haven’t actually been told in the material they have been given to read. This does not come naturally to our young children. Students go back to find the answer in the text. However, these answers won’t be located in the text. Students must draw their own conclusions by making inferences about what was read.

There are many more reading skills being tested than I can fit into this short column. This does provide a good representation of how complex the reading skills are that our school-age children are expected to master. I hope this information helps to explain how a child may be a good reader, yet still score low on the tests being administered. This may also help to clarify how a good reader may not have the high grades that the parents are expecting.

The OSTP testing begins in April. If parents have questions about these tests, or how to help their child prepare, they should request a meeting with the child’s teacher.

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