Digitizing Research-Based Assessments

The current landscape of our educational system is filled with over-simplified and polarized views on critical issues such as student assessment and teacher evaluation.  If we are serious about the education of our future generations, then we can no longer afford such views to plague our healthy debate.

First of all, any serious educator is a master at assessing students in realtime and making on-the-spot adjustments to their lessons. Thus, assessing students is not the problem and neither is evaluating teachers.

What is problematic is frequent standardized assessments that do not help guide my lessons, do not add to the learning process of my students, nor to parental involvement, but that are instead used to evaluate our performance.  The Read With Me team wants to reframe the purpose, vehicle, and value of assessments.

Case and point #1:  Reframing the Purpose of Assessments

Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss chronicles the growing movement of parents and school districts opting-out of student participation in standardized testing:

What’s the reason for the growing resistance? Actually, there are a number of them. Student scores on standardized tests have become the main accountability measure today for students, schools, teachers, principals, districts and even states. Assessment experts have warned that standardized tests are not designed for such purposes, but they are being used by reformers who either don’t believe the experts or are ignoring them.

As a serious educator and parent, I wonder how standardized tests, even as summative assessments,  contribute to my students or children acquiring the higher order thinking skills that lead to a robust understanding of their world?

Read With Me is not meant to maintain the status-quo.  By digitizing formative and summative fluency assessments we are using technology to encourage a shift in education from assessments OF learning to assessments FOR learning.

Assessments FOR learning help teachers cut down on paperwork to grade and ineffective use of time.  Assessments FOR learning also help students interact dynamically with assessment vehicles and immediately learn from their own, their parent, or their peer feedback.

When rethinking the purpose of assessing a child’s fluency we concluded that, as educators, we wanted to develop a tool with researched-based elements shown to help students learn.  That means the learners know their learning goals, where they are in meeting those goals, and how to get there; that means teachers are skilled at assessing student progress and prescribing alternative ways of learning; that means that schools have a systematic culture of learning through assessing; and that means that parents also know their child’s learning goal and how to support their child and the teacher in attaining those goals.

Read With Me not only makes it easier for all parties to assess for fluency but it also makes it possible to use this data anytime, anywhere, and by ANYONE (anyone within the private circle of the students).  That means everyone knows the learning goals, is actively thinking about the area they need to improve on, and that they have various ways to improve.

Case and point #2:  Reframing the Vehicle of Assessments

All teachers know that if you assess FLUency, it can actually make you feel like you have the flu (see Why Running Records?).

Computer based assessment is nothing new and it has its proven advantages.  Some include instant feedback to the student and more flexibility: students can assess anytime, anywhere.  One disadvantage of anytime, anywhere computer based assessment can be accountability:  how does the teacher know if the intended student is the one taking the test?

Read With Me’s approach reframes the purpose of assessment, as well as reframes the idea of computer based assessments as we know them today by adding components of mobile learning all too familiar to many English as a Second Language teachers:  users can access it on a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone anytime, anywhere, by anyone.

By adding a video component of the child reading we tackle the accountability issue.  We also realized that a video adds much more potential to instruction as well as to the human connection between all parties.  If we have the ability to video record a student reading for accountability, we could also use that video to encourage the parent to watch and grade their child’s reading on their own time.  Not only that, teachers and parents could exponentially add to the amount of time a child can experience a read a-loud, which is also a research-based strategy proven to strengthen literacy.

Read With Me envisions assessments as a painless and effective process whereby learners and families are collaborating with the teacher to achieve learning goals.  Digitized assessments that layer components of mobile learning make assessments more like learning activities rather than stressful, cumbersome routines.

Stay tuned for more screen shots of the newest version!


Read With Me Drop-out Doctor to be a Hiword WINNER

First and foremost congratulations to our colleagues who developed Drop-out Doctor and HiWord, the third and second  place winners for best overall education application!

Drop-out Doctor is a student-centered application that allows students to see what kinds of choices dropping-out actually affords them.  A commercial I just saw reminds me of Drop-out Doctor: a high school student is dreaming about what would happen if he dropped out of high school, he is sucked into his bed several times until he lands on a mattress under an overpass as a homeless man, then the student wakes up and runs to class.  Certainly sobering, good job guys!

We also liked Hiword,  an application that uses an innovative method to assist users in remembering foreign language.  As teachers we know that academic language acquisition even among native English speakers can be challenging since its so closely dependent on the cultural capital of students.  More education applications that work toward increasing engagement and access for English Language Learners are also near and dear to our hearts.

But among the 200 individual competitors and 32 teams of educators and developers at the AT&T Hackathon in Palo Alto, the Read With Me team rose to the challenge  as explained by Alex Donn, Senior Marketing Manager AT&T, “…to critically think about how to blend technology in the education system…to reduce the high school drop out rate.”

When announcing Read With Me as the first place winners, Lucien Vattel, CEO of GameDesk, acknowledged the relevance of the education app in the education world:

Looking at the top prize we looked for something that could immediately be used in the classroom and not only bridge teachers to students but also have fantastic potential to create connection with parents and their kids. The other thing that we really like seeing is tools that promote discourse and collaboration.


Another challenge the Read With Me team rose to was to seamlessly collaborate despite the teachers meeting their developer that night.  As Stanford professor Benny Banerjee hoped of that night “…They might not come up with something particularly notable tonight but the group might stay together and do something notable tomorrow, so I’m hoping that among them there are some systems that they code and bring  to the world where it has great conceptual value.”

Thus, representing the judges panel Mr. Vattel further celebrated the Read With Me team’s ability to build a positive, collaborative relationship:

We looked at how much you were able to accomplish in terms of features and things that would actually support the outcomes. The other thing that we observed with this team is the way in which the teachers and developer worked together, it was really strong. They developed a relationship that we believe led to that many features and the type of presentation and app that we saw.

The Read With Me team continues to work, updating and adding a plethora of meaningful features to the application that liberate teachers by digitizing research-based pedagogy and empower students and parents.  More on that coming soon!

Why Running Records?

Every school year, in virtually every elementary classroom where there is a teacher with more than a heartbeat, you are likely to see reading fluency assessments taking place.  As a classroom teacher, I give at least one hundred of these tests, commonly known as running records, to each student at a minimum of three times a year to measure their accuracy in reading letters and sounds, and whether they are at benchmark in terms of words-per-minute for their grade.

And while these tests can be incredibly informative if done diligently, they are also a pain to manage and administer. Consider the following:

Teacher Administering running record

A teacher has to prepare all the photocopies of the recording sheets for the passages for the anticipated passages.  Then they have to manage a binder, a roster, a recording sheet for the results. Then they have to find a stopwatch, a quiet corner, and carve out a lot of time from their schedule to knock them all down. If the teacher is lucky they will have release time to do this, or if they are like me, they have to do it in a room full of giggly sixth graders, who have to do a quiet activity that involves little superversion, so that the teacher can best concentrate on listening to their classmates read aloud.

Once the child is done reading and you have marked all their errors, or miscues, and annotated the type of mistakes made, it’s then time to do the calculations.

How many words did this child read?

Minus how many words read incorrectly.

But don’t count duplicate words twice.

How long did it take them?

Divide number of words by time.

Find the accuracy percentage by dividing number of words correct into total number of words read.

Did they meet the benchmark?

Consult paper that has all the benchmarks.

You get the picture. It’s a very tedious and time consuming task.

So at some point the idea surfaced that these tests, which happen in virtually every elementary classroom in some form or another, can be done much faster (subtract the time at the copier, the time organizing the paperwork, the tedious math and recording…) and be much more meaningful, not only to teachers, but to parents who need to take ownership of their child’s goals and progress by going through the running records themselves.

Reading Fluency is not the only measure of reading, nor is it arguably the best. But it is an essential component of understanding a child’s literacy needs, because as many studies show, reading fluency is closely aligned to comprehension, self-esteem and general reading success.

“Adequate progress in learning to read English (or, any alphabetic language) beyond the initial level depends on sufficient practice in reading to achieve fluency with different texts”

M. Susan Burns, Ph.D. Study Director,  Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. 1998.

Being informed about a student’s reading progress should not be limited to just parent conferences. Parents and students themselves should be able to practice with whatever reading material they want, and practice their fluency.

Reading fluently is a precursor to making meaning from a text. The less fluency a student has, the more time she or he spends decoding the actual sounds the letters represent, leaving little room left for actual comprehension. If, however, the student decodes automatically, then they can focus all of their attention on unravelling the meaning of the text, making connections, drawing conclusions and other higher order reading skills.

“Fluent readers can read text with speed accuracy, and proper expression. Fluency depends upon well developed word recognition skills, but such skills do not inevitably lead to fluency. It is generally acknowledged that fluency is a critical component of skilled reading. Nevertheless, it is often neglected in classroom instruction.”

-Executive Summary – National Reading Panel – Report of the Subgroup on Fluency

Neglecting fluency is a common practice in many elementary classrooms. With all of the other requirements, and with all the assessments and practice assessments, reading fluency development often falls by the wayside. Teachers may just leave its development to regular reading practice of independently chosen titles, for example. This works in the long run. The longer the child spends practicing reading and decoding, the more fluent she or he will become. However students are rarely given a chance to monitor their own growth. They may be told they are at a particular level, or that they read such and such words per minute, but little is done during the greater part of the year to provide that student with the tools to make sure they work towards their benchmark or goal.

With all of these issues in mind, we decided that the world would be a whole lot better, for teachers AND students, if fluency assessments were more streamlined and less burdensome, easier to record, graph and share, and most of all, available to the families to administer themselves with whatever content they wished.

  • Teachers could spend less time testing and more time actually addressing the decoding skills of their students.
  • Students could practice their fluency and self-monitor their progress towards agreed benchmarks at home.
  • Parents could take part in assessing their own children thereby narrowing the gap between the school and the home.

Mobile technology such as iPads and web-enabled devices of all sorts can now bring these practices anywhere where there is a connection. And why not add video and playback capabilities to share with your peers your reading progress and get feedback? All you need are two devices and you are ready to assess your peer, child, student, or little brother.

If you find these developments interesting, or if you just wish to stay in the loop please contact us:


Read With Me Wins AT&T Hackathon in Palo Alto!

June 13 2012 (OAKLAND) – Read With Me, a web app to make reading fluency assessments less tedious and more interactive among teachers, students, and parents, was voted first place at the AT&T Mobile Education Hackathon June 9th.

Left to right: JeanCarl, Reina, Francisco

Conceived by a team of two teachers from the East Bay and programmed by a web developer from Mountain View,  Read With Me was developed in less than 24 hours. The trio was formed on Friday night and was showing it off by Saturday night, an impressive feat for any start-up.

Fourth grade teacher Reina Sofia Cabezas from Cox Academy in Oakland and sixth grade bilingual teacher and budding iPad developer Francisco Nieto from Tyrrell School in Hayward pitched the problem to a group of over 200 developers, teachers and students who attended the event to build and demo 32 mobile apps.  Cabezas and Nieto were joined by web developer JeanCarl Bisson from Mountain View.

“Having been to a number of these hackathons before, I knew how to narrow down all their great ideas to a viable product to demo in 24 hours,” Bisson said.  ”We selected the most important features and really focused on getting them built.”

Cabezas and Nieto, first time attendees to a hackathon, had no idea what they had signed up for.

“It was a little overwhelming.  We had this idea that can help solve a problem me and my other colleagues have, and we knew we were in the right place to find someone to help us,” Cabezas, mother of two middle school-aged students and teacher of 33 fourth graders, said after the event.  Evolving her own practice from a teacher-centered to student-centered pedagogy, Cabezas added, ”I want to empower my students and involve parents into the reading assessment process.”

Nieto, having spent hours administering running record assesments to hundreds of students over the years immediately related to the problem. “Fluency assessments are important for measuring reading performance, but they can be a pain to administer. We knew a better, faster, more meaningful system was possible.”

Read With Me team presenting app to panel of judges

“Read With Me can be used immediately in the classroom, not only bridging teachers and students together, but connecting parents and their kids together,” the judges said during the award ceremony Saturday night.  ”This app really promotes discourse and collaboration.  We also liked the way the teacher and developer worked together.”

The team is planning native apps for the Apple App Store and Android Marketplace, and a beta release in time for the 2012-2013 school year.  Teachers and schools interested in a pilot should contact connect@readwithmeapp.com.

Also, From AT&T: Read all about it here!