Reading Assessment: Elevating the Role of the Evidence-based Response

The evolution of Maine’s state level reading assessment has led to some key design changes to measure reading standards.  These changes are informed by research and fueled by a commitment to the best interest of students. Understanding the evolution of reading assessment and what that means for classroom practice is key to helping students grow and prepare for what comes after high school: work, school, and life.

One significant change in Maine reading assessment is the evidence-based response. Questions have always been text-based, meaning that students need to demonstrate an ability to make meaning of the text they read independently. and then answer questions that require little or no outside knowledge to respond correctly. New to the reading assessment design is the evidence-based selected response item.  Maine’s reading assessment for grades 3-8, eMPower, includes two-part questions that ask first for students to identify a correct answer demonstrating comprehension, then to respond to a question asking them to identify the best evidence to support the correct answer. This item construct is also evident on the updated SAT (since spring 2016) with sequential items that also ask for the best evidence to support the previous item.

Another change to the reading assessment format is the use of paired passages and questions, utilizing both selected and constructed response constructs, that require students to synthesize and analyze elements across passages.

Close reading habits that encourage careful analysis, especially of the author’s craft and rhetoric, will help students identify the best evidence to demonstrate understanding. Developing consistent strategies for engaging with sufficiently complex texts is essential. Whether its annotation, think-aloud modeling, or directed discussion, close reading habits will help students grow as readers. Further, designing instructional experiences in which students are reading multiple texts connected to the same topic and then engaging in comparison of various aspects of the texts affords students with the opportunity to sharpen their analytic skills while also building knowledge and vocabulary.  Employing text sets developed around essential questions and content related topics is a supportive instructional practice for addressing the standards that expect students to read, synthesize and analyze information across multiple texts.

Here are some items from state level reading assessment that exemplify these key changes:

Grade 11: SAT

On the April 2017 school day test, students were asked to read a pair of passages adapted from speeches delivered by Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton following the Constitutional Convention. The first question asks students to demonstrate comprehension of one of the passages: Based on Passage 2, which statement best reflects Pendleton’s view of the Articles of Confederation? Only 21% of Maine 11th graders were able to select the correct response: They had little to do with America’s having prevailed in its most recent conflict. Nearly as many students (20%) thought they were a great concern while more students chose two other incorrect responses (28% for each of the other responses).

The next question asks which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question? Students are then directed to specific lines in the passage and must determine which provides the best evidence to support their response. Each of the selected examples may have a degree of relationship to the previous response, but one is better, a stronger example, then the others. This item construct is new to SAT and not immediately obvious from score data, but can be easily identified when examining the released test.

Grade 6: eMPower

In this example, two texts are paired, a fictional narrative and a poem, about creating music and visual art. The first question asks: Which of the following best states the central idea of Passage 2?  Each response is somewhat true, but one is much better than the others. Response B, Students can get satisfaction from making art, requires inference across the text.

The second part of this questions asks; Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question? The correct response is “That paint does flow like a wider river/ . . . but in time, we can tame it.” Students must carefully assess the relationship between each of the selected segments and the central idea of the passage.

Grade 4: eMPower

A sample constructed item for this grade expects students to read two passages about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s journey with her husband and daughter to the Ozarks and then analyze the passages to determine differences in the information contained in them.

Both passages describe the Wilders’ journey to the Ozarks.  Compare how this information is different in each passage.  Use details from both passages in your answer.

Grade 3: eMPower

In this sample item, students are asked to read an informational passage, Dragonflies: Interesting Insects, and then respond to the following two-part evidence-based selected response item:

  1. What is the main idea of the passage?
  2. Which detail from the passage best supports the answer above?

This item not only expects students to determine the passage’s main idea, but then students need to support this conclusion with the most supportive evidence from the passage.

Supporting Close Reading

Two part or related questions are not necessarily new to classroom practice, but are a recent update to Maine assessment. Look for sample items to see more examples and check out the resources provided on the Maine DOE ELA resources page.


AL: August 2017

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

wonderAugust Pullman was born with a craniofacial abnormality which required many surgical procedures. He was home-schooled until fifth grade when he entered a private school. Auggie has to deal with so much more than just being new. Can the people around him see past his appearance and appreciate who he is? The film adaptation of this novel will be released in November and stars Julia Roberts and Own Wilson as Auggie’s parents.  This is an appropriate read for fifth graders about a fifth grader.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

ThisGlass Castles remarkable memoir reveals the brilliance and destruction of the Walls family. The children learned at an early age to take care of themselves and each other, despite persistent empty promises from their parents.  The book is accessible and compelling, appropriate for both middle and high school students. A film adaptation released in August 2017 is exceptionally well done, capturing the lasting impact of childhood trauma on the author.  Woody Harrelson is particularly talented as Rex Walls, Jeannette’s lovable scoundrel of a father.

Why Does Text Complexity Matter When Determining Growth Of Student Learning?

Text complexity is a hot topic for English teachers and literacy educators. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) elevated the role of text complexity in implementing standards and the accompanying documents provide distinct definitions of and measures for determining text complexity. While teacher judgment is still a critical consideration for determining a text’s complexity, other, more objective factors provide a greater likelihood of consistency across teachers, schools, programs, and texts. Effectively using all of this information about text complexity plays a critical role in supporting student growth.

First, an overall understanding of the CCSS for ELA is essential. The standards are organized into four strands for efficiency, but should not be addressed as stand-alone units. Literacy instruction and development is an iterative process that involves the interaction of reading to inform writing and discussion, talk to deepen understanding of ideas and knowledge, writing to process and reflect what has been learned. Underpinning all of these is the language strand. Students must understand the vocabulary of the learning situation whether it is common academic vocabulary or discipline-specific vocabulary. Each discipline presents ideas in different ways and moving between the rhetoric of each discipline is necessary. Every lesson, every assessment, every classroom experience should include and reflect the appropriate grade-level language standards.

Why is text complexity important?

Quantitative Measures: An objective foundation for analysis

The most popular quantitative measure of text complexity is, perhaps, Lexile scores. Lexile does not address the content or quality of the book, just the text difficulty. Lexile information aligns most distinctly to the CCSS Language standards as vocabulary, sentence structure, punctuation and syntax are evaluated. Most published books commonly used in classrooms have been evaluated for a Lexile score. “Complexity bands” for grade levels help educators determine where the scores fall. These bands were updated after the publication of the CCSS to reflect appropriate grade level complexity. One stimulus for this update is a close examination of the language standards. In other words, the research that informed the development of the standards also influenced the updated thinking about grade level complexity. Starting an evaluation of text complexity with a quantitative score anchors the analysis and planning in the standards. Close analysis of the application of the language standards in the text often opens avenues for close reading and additional instruction.

What does the Lexile measure mean?   Lexile Titles Database    Lexile by Chapter Guides

Qualitative Measures: Deep reading of a text

The qualitative measures of text complexity include the structure, features, language, and meaning. While the sentences may be simple and the words familiar, the arrangement may elevate complexity. Texts that provide multiple perspectives with many characters or that move between time and place to tell multiple stories at once provide greater complexity than those that move chronologically from a single perspective. Topics, characters and events can all affect complexity at any grade level.

Quantitative Text Complexity Rubric

Reader and Task: Know your students and what you want them to do

Analyzing the qualitative and quantitative elements of a text may reveal areas of instruction aligned to specific learning goals. This doesn’t mean you have to teach every aspect of the text, but that you take advantage of instructional opportunities as they fit into your curriculum, the unit of study, your student’s strengths and needs, and other goals across the school year. For example, you may select a particular text for its content components (qualitative) although its complexity is below grade level. Close reading strategies, therefore, may be limited to a few key points in the text rather than across the entire text. You may also forgo vocabulary instruction within the text as it is largely unnecessary, and instead focus on developing academic vocabulary relevant to the text or topic. Remember, if you are an early elementary educator, you can read aloud texts with greater complexity than what your students can read on their own.  This begins to build their vocabulary and experience with increasingly complex syntax, language, structure and literary elements.

Considerations for Reader and Task analysis

Encouraging and documenting growth

Text complexity considerations may reveal a road map for instruction. There are several actions you may take once your analysis is complete:

  • Set priorities based on learning goals and what the text has to offer.
  • Create text sets that complement the anchor text and provide more instructional opportunities.
  • Make sure to include “stretch” texts – those that will require a reach for students to comprehend and analyze.
  • Provide scaffolding and supports for stretch texts to build strength in literacy skills.
  • Encourage independent reading of less complex texts to develop endurance or stamina.

State ELA and Literacy leaders have developed a website to support understanding of text complexity and effective implementation practices. Go to Navigating Text Complexity. Student Achievement Partners also provide a plethora of resources to support understanding of text complexity at Achieve the Core: Text Complexity.