How can a one-minute kindergarten test help teachers tackle the ‘COVID slide’?

One by one, Michelle Davis brings her kindergarteners over to a special spot in her Dallas classroom. After a student settles in at the colorful, U-shaped table, Davis taps his Apple watch, setting off the one-minute timer.

She carefully observes as each kindergartener sounds out the letters and words in Spanish on a worksheet, reading through as many as possible over the next 60 seconds.

“Just tell me what you know,” she urged the students, who are learning English, at FP Caillet Elementary.

When time runs out, Davis’ watch vibrates against her wrist. She doesn’t explicitly broadcast to her students that she’s testing them. But the act of closely monitoring how the child goes through the page — how many letters the student gets to in time, which sound combinations lead to stumbles — provides Davis the kind of information he needs to formulate a plan for boosting literacy skills. She’ll do the same thing every few weeks, tracking her students’ improvement.

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It sounds simple, but literacy experts say these kinds of quick, low-key assessments — if done right — can be an important tool for teachers as they work to get Texas’ youngest learners on track after the pandemic ended their very first experiences with school .

More children were unaccounted for in the early grades than in any other grades across the state. Roughly 75,000 fewer pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners enrolled in Texas public schools in January 2021 vs. 2019. While students often come into elementary school classrooms with a wide range of early literacy skills, the pandemic likely made those gaps even more uneven.

Making time for one-minute tests is one way to help to pinpoint what a child is struggling with so a teacher can map out a specific and personalized plan to catch the student up.

But teachers need training on interpreting the data and using it to implement fixes, educators say, especially because they have to balance so many other tasks in their classrooms.

Those early grades are critical for laying the foundation to ensure students become strong readers.

“When children are missing skills, it usually boils down to something very specific,” said Diane Gifford, an education professor at Southern Methodist University. “If we can address what specifically is going on, we can get them for sure.”

Both pre-K and kindergarten are optional in Texas. This year many parents chose to keep their young children out of school, fearful of the coronavirus or elements about how virtual learning would translate with a wiggly 5- or 6-year-old.

Kindergarten teachers — and some first-grade educators — are used to welcoming classes where some of the kids may not have attended school the year before, meaning they have to bring them up to speed and introduce them to fundamentals. But the number of students requiring a more intensive orientation will likely be higher next year in many classrooms.

At the same time, there could be an increase in parents who are holding their children back to repeat pre-K or kindergarten to make up for the abnormal COVID-19 year. Currently, the Legislature is considering a bill that would make it easier for parents to do so, though it’s unclear how widespread that choice will be.

Teachers will face “all kinds of situations in the classroom,” Gifford said.

Insights from quick tests would then help inform them on how to “group” students for lessons and what type of help might be most effective for each child.

To make the best use of the results, though, Gifford said teachers must receive training in how to administer and analyze them. She’s working on that through her education courses at SMU, but wants to see these methods taught and demonstrated at a more widespread level.

“In some schools, it’s part of their culture,” she said, “and in some schools, it’s not.”

The Texas Education Agency is in the midst of a multiyear effort to expand intensive teacher training on early literacy. Part of that will include how to use assessments to inform teaching.

The University of Texas at Austin’s Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk includes the use of informal diagnostic assessments and frequent progress monitoring among their recent key practices for reading intervention.

“The most important thing is they have to be careful to use it to make instructional decisions, not just to put it in a file,” said Sharon Vaughn, the center’s executive director.

Davis is one of Gifford’s students at SMU. A longtime educator, she says the techniques she’s learned during graduate school have changed how she approaches early literacy. (SMU supports the Education Lab at The Dallas Morning News.)

“We don’t know where a student is in their literacy development if we don’t assess them,” she said. “We won’t know how to drive our instructions.”

Davis recalled one student who, during a quick screening, was able to identify letters but struggled with blending them. She kept missing the middle or ending sounds of a three-letter word.

“It told me I needed to practice with that student on segmenting the sounds,” Davis said.

She sees this strategy paying off in her classroom. For one of her struggling students, Davis set an objective of mastering two letter sounds a week. The quick assessments help her track the student’s progress as the child works toward her goals.

She assesses her students with the Spanish-version of a series of tests, widely used across the country, called Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, from the University of Oregon.

By running the assessments often, Davis says she is able to carefully graph student progress and intervene when a student falls behind. She stays after school with a handful of kids — those who are struggling the most — to provide an extra hour of instruction to zero in on what’s holding them back. She watches as some kids advance from being able to read no letters at all to several.

If a student stalls, Davis looks inward: How can I change the way I teach this child?

The need for reading intervention is serious in many schools. Amplify, a digital learning company, released a February analysis based on DIBELS data from 41 states, comparing middle of the school year scores from the 2019-’20 and 2020-’21 school years.

The company found a 68% increase in the percentage of kindergarten students identified as being at “greatest risk for not learning to read.” The decline in readiness was similar in first grade.

Black and Hispanic children were particularly hard hit, it was found.

Texas education officials are eager to see what state standardized tests show about how students are doing after two school years ended by COVID-19. But the data stemming from the STAAR test will come with significant caveats and results won’t be available to parse for months.

Quick assessments like the ones Davis uses are helpful in that they can be analyzed right away. Plus, amid so much testing fatigue among families, teachers hope that one-minute tests don’t trigger as much stress in kids as multihour assessments.

Still, there’s been criticism among some academics that these kinds of tests encourage students to think that, in reading, faster is always better.

Gina Biancarosa, of the University of Oregon’s Center on Teaching and Learning, acknowledged this, but said teachers should make it clear to students that they want them to do their “best reading.”

While Oregon’s model is built upon years of research indicating that it can yield helpful information, Biancarosa cautioned that neither it — nor any other kind of screener — is built to help students themselves. The data it generates must be used in the right way by the teacher.

She also said that it’s meant to be one of multiple data points used to draw conclusions about where a child stands.

And although it takes time to individually test each child, Biancarosa said the model fosters one-on-one attention between the student and teacher — something that many kids missed during the pandemic.

Davis, for example, ends the quick assessment with a fist pump, her smile and excitement about her students’ work evident from behind a mask.

Kindergarten teacher Michelle Davis administers a quick literacy diagnostic test to Briana...
Kindergarten teacher Michelle Davis administers a quick literacy diagnostic test to Briana Vargas, 6, at FP Caillet Elementary in Dallas on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. These bimonthly, quick diagnostic assessments give her the info she needs to plot out how to get her students on track amid the pandemic. (Lynda M. González/The Dallas Morning News)(Lynda M. González / Staff Photographer)

When the Texas Legislature passed its landmark education bill last session, it included an emphasis on these kinds of assessments. All kindergartens must go through a beginning-of-year literacy screener, using one of two approved tools, which are made available to districts for free. This year is the first that requirements were kicked in, but waivers were available because of COVID-19.

Teachers are supposed to screen students in three waves, at the beginning, middle and end of the year. When — and how often — teachers ultimately use the tools are local decisions.

Also part of the education revamp is the creation of so-called HB3 Reading Academies, designed to help Texas educators understand how to effectively monitor the progress of a student’s literacy skills based on assessment data. All kindergarten through third-grade teachers were to get this enhanced training by the end of the 2023 school year — but that could be extended because of the pandemic.

That training is key, experts say, for teachers to understand how the results translate into helping a student who stumbles over naming their letters or blending the sounds.

“It’s not a panacea,” Biancarosa said of quick screener tests. “Teachers need to have professional development in how to use the data.”

The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.