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Reading for Understanding — Example of a Middle School Assessment

In real life, people read with a specific purpose in mind. The purpose can be as simple as locating a specific date or more complex, such as reading multiple web sites to find out what is the best electronic tablet to buy.

We believe assessments should also provide students with a realistic purpose for reading. That is why we created a new type of assessment called GISA — Global, Integrated, Scenario-based Assessments — to help improve student motivation and learning. GISA uses a scenario-based technique to provide students with a reason to read and integrate a variety of related sources on a particular topic.

Each assessment begins with an introduction that describes the purpose and context for completing a related set of activities. Below is one example of a GISA scenario where students are asked to create a website to help people in their community learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of building green schools.

The test-taker is given a brief orientation to the topic of Green Schools in this sample introduction. A picture of a green or environmentally-friendly school provides a visual context. The introduction describes the main objectives the test-taker will be working on in the assessment. In the lower half of the page, the test-taker meets three simulated peers who the test-taker will be working with throughout the assessment.

We believe students should learn information from a wide range of sources, genres and perspectives. This not only helps promote a more culturally-diverse set of experiences, but it also helps expand students' appreciation and depth of understanding in a particular topic. For these reasons, each GISA assessment features a set of diverse materials (texts, emails, webpages, images, etc.) that the student uses to complete and integrate a set of related activities.

Here is an example of an introductory middle school text on the topic of “green schools.” This first text is designed to provide a general overview of the topic to help build up students’ background knowledge before they read and complete a more complicated set of activities that “dig deeper” into the topic and key issues.

This expository passage provides a general overview of Green Schools. It describes what Green Schools are and how they are built and operate in more environmental-friendly ways. It also explains how Green Schools can have a positive impact on learning.

Today's reading standards demand more from students. While this is an important aim, we also believe that students should be given adequate support and opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

In many cases, we provide scaffolds and guidelines to help students better understand and model the kinds of things we would like them to do. For instance, while research has shown that summary writing can help promote understanding, students often have difficulty with summary writing. To this end, GISA assessments typically feature summary tasks to help support the use of this strategy in improving comprehension. GISA also provides various types of scaffolding for writing summaries. Below is an example of some guidelines that students are given to help them prepare to write a summary.

The Summary Guidelines list qualities that students can use to write a high quality summary. The guidelines remind the students that a good summary includes all the main ideas, but should not include opinions or information from outside the passage and should be written in the student’s own words.

We typically use a range of techniques to both model and support learning. As stated above, students often have difficulty writing summaries in part because they do not know what level of detail is expected of them. When a student is asked to write a summary, we frequently provide a “model summary” which sets an expectation for what we want. This model summary provides students with an idea of how long the summary should be, as well as the amount of detail they should include. To reduce memory load, we also make sure the passage is available so that the student can consult it as needed.

This sample item repeats the expository Green Schools passage on the left side of the screen. On the right side of the screen, the test-taker sees directions for the summary-writing task and a message from a simulated peer, who states that he has written a summary of one section of the passage and provides his model summary. His dialogue instructs the test-taker to write a 2-3 sentence summary of a section of the passage. A textbox is provided at the bottom of the right side of the screen for the test-taker to write their summary.

Texts can often be long and complicated. One strategy that might help students efficiently remember text is to organize the key points into a graphic. These “graphic organizer” tasks are routinely used in GISA assessments to help the student demonstrate their understanding of the structure and major concepts of a text. In GISA assessments, we typically provide scaffolding for these tasks. In the example below, some cells in the graphic organizer are filled out to help scaffold the task.

A simulated peer introduces a graphic organizer task and asks the test-taker to help her complete it. The partially completed graphic organizer is presented on the right side of the screen. Options for completing the graphic organizer are presented on the screen. Directions at the top of the screen instruct the test-taker to drag options from the left to the area in the graphic organizer where they belong. They are also told that they can view the article again by clicking on the View Article button at the bottom of the page.

In real-life classrooms and leisure, people interact and collaborate with one another on a routine basis. Sometimes your fellow students scaffold your understanding of the world, whereas in other cases, you help clarify and point out misconceptions in your fellow student's thinking. Such collaborative activities are a key feature in GISA assessments.

Most GISA assessments feature simulated peer interactions and the use of simulated digital media resources, such as message boards to help both scaffold test takers understanding and identify errors and misconceptions in their thinking. Below are two examples of how we use peer interactions. The first is an example of how simulated peers and teachers can clarify information in the assessment or reinforce task instructions. The second is an example of a simulated forum where members state facts, present incorrect information, give their opinions and go off topic, just as they do in real forums. In the 21st century learning environments, students need to sift through the wealth of information that is sometimes incorrect.

This sample item illustrates a peer and teacher interaction where the students ask for clarity about their next task - moderating a web forum. The teacher explains that their job is to read all the posts to make sure people stay on topic and correct any incorrect information that is presented by the forum members. The teacher then introduces their first task with the web forum - deciding if the posts are facts, opinion, incorrect or off topic.


Comments from a simulated web forum are presented on the left with unique icons for each community member that has posted on the forum. To the right of each comment, there are four response options with radio buttons: Fact, Opinion, Incorrect and Off Topic. The directions at the top of the screen instruct the test-taker to classify each forum post and remind the test-taker to click the View Article button if they would like to reread the article on Green Schools.

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ETS Research Forum: John Sabatini & Tenaha O'Reilly

ETS Research Forum: John Sabatini & Tenaha O'Reilly Video

Watch a presentation from ETS's R&D Forum about the Reading for Understanding initiative (Flash, 50:51).