Last year, Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said the Education Department did not promote or endorse specific programs, and schools were best-placed to make these decisions.
This year, the Victorian Education Department is inviting schools in the North-East region to apply for up to $2000 to be spent on either Fountas and Pinnell or PAT Reading assessments, or a choice of three maths assessments:
The extra funds and emphasis on data-driven instructional decision-making are welcome, but not if they help teachers gather data on how well children can memorise and guess words, or identify children who are struggling with reading comprehension, without clarifying why (decoding? language comprehension? both?).
I’m no expert on mainstream educational assessments for typically-developing older students, but literacy assessments for beginners and strugglers (such as the ones listed here) should assess the skills that matter most for learning to read and spell.
These include phonemic awareness and letter knowledge in beginners, and phonological memory, rapid automatised naming, word and pseudoword reading and spelling in strugglers. These assessments can identify word-level reading/dyslexia-type difficulties, and thus powerfully inform effective instructional decision-making.
Children who seem to have oral language comprehension problems, which also affect reading comprehension, should be referred to a speech pathologist. Children whose comprehension problems arise from pedagogy that prioritises form over content need their teachers to read The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler.
I have only once administered a Fountas and Pinnell assessment, and it left me scratching my head. I just don’t get the whole balanced literacy/guided reading headspace, which has its roots in the now-debunked idea that reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game.
You might already have watched the US Reading League video of psychologist Steve Dykstra unpacking the statistics in the “gold standard” study on Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention program, showing the program was ineffective, though since most teachers don’t know how to read the statistics, they believe the marketing materials, and keep buying it. This doesn’t exactly build my confidence in the validity or reliability of Fountas and Pinnell assessments.
On the assessment page of the Fountas and Pinnell website, you’ll see that the Benchmark Level Assessment assesses “students’ independent and instructional reading levels according to the F&P Text Level Gradient™“. The last time I looked, this gradient did not reflect the sequence of sounds, spelling patterns and word parts being taught in literacy lessons.
Fountas and Pinnell books for beginners are predictable/repetitive texts, which don’t simplify spelling patterns, and thus tend to encourage children to memorise and guess words, not decode them. I’d be (pleasantly) surprised if their assessments don’t reflect the same logic.
The PAT is the other reading test North-East region schools are currently allowed to buy with this new funding. The Australian Council for Educational Research sells the PAT tests, and its website says that the “Progressive Achievement Tests in Reading assess students’ reading comprehension skills, vocabulary knowledge and spelling”. It doesn’t say anything about word-level reading or phonemic awareness.
The PAT Reading test might be just what schools in the North-East region most need right now, but it might not be. Schools teaching children phonemic awareness and systematic, explicit phonics, and with a strong Response To Intervention approach, are very likely to need other assessments to document the progress of some students, for good, scientifically-based reasons.
Education Minister James Merlino should clarify that he meant what he said last year, and let schools propose other valid, reliable assessments for purchase with this additional funding. Taxpayers’ money should only be spent on valid, reliable assessments that are consistent with current scientific knowledge about how children learn to read and spell.