Grade 4 Literacy Test said not effective

BY Pat Roxborough-Wright Observer writer

Sunday, October 13, 2002    

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Jacqueline Chambers' four year-old can enunciate almost all the words in the reading books prescribed for her kindergarten class. So can her young cousins who live nearby.

So could their 10 year-old friend who passed the literacy test that the Ministry of Education uses to determine whether nine and 10 year-old students in Grade Four have attained the requisite literacy skills for promotion to Grade Five.

However, Chambers, a 32-year-old financial controller, isn't impressed with any of them.

"They think they can read. They have been led to believe that they can read, but like thousands of others in the primary school system, they can't," she told the Sunday Observer last week.

What they can do, Chambers argues, is recognise to some extent, word shapes.

"They can recognise some words by their shape, but they can't figure out unfamiliar words by breaking them up into syllables and sounding them. The 11-year-old mistook the word 'Isn't' for 'First' and she couldn't even begin to work the difference out. She can call a number of words, but if you change those words slightly, she can't tell the difference, because she doesn't understand phonics, the relationship between the letters and the sounds they represent," she said.

Chambers appealed to her child's teacher who now makes a special effort to incorporate a greater level of phonetics in her teaching methods.

But the experience inspired Chambers to do a bit of research which revealed the same weaknesses in a number of other children who had passed the Grade Four Literacy Test, which, according to Edwin Thomas, the Ministry of Education's spokesman, is one in a series of internal tests used in primary schools to assess the level of reading each child is capable of.

The Grade Four Literacy Test was introduced in 1999 through the education ministry's National Assessment Programme. It is marked out of a total of 78 points.

This year, the first section of the test consisted of multiple choice type questions. The students were asked to match given pictures with the corresponding word which they were required to choose from a group of four.

That section carried 40 marks.

In the following section, eight marks were awarded based on the students' ability to fill out an application form to attend summer camp. On that form, they are required to write their names and other personal information.

The remaining 30 marks were awarded based on the students' ability to write a friendly letter and select the right answer from a choice based on a few brief passages at the literal and inferential levels.

Students who failed this test, which is administered in May each year, are required to attend a three-week summer camp and then take it again before moving up a grade.

But Chambers, and several other parents that the Sunday Observer discussed the issue with, don't think the tests can make any determination concerning their children's reading ability.

"This test is a scam for providing a rationale on which to push children through the system at any cost," said one parent who gave her name only as Miss Lodge. "It's quite possible for a child to score high in the picture-matching section and pass the rest of the test by rote, which I know they are being coached to do. At nine and 10. no, at five and six, a normal child should know letter sounds, which are critical to reading."

Like Chambers, Lodge began to incorporate phonics into her child's reading exercises last year. She also told the Sunday Observer that she knew the children were being told what to expect on the test papers, copies of which are available despite efforts by the education ministry to keep them secret.

"These tests are a joke for nine and 10 year olds. Matching pictures and words are no proof that a child can read and I know they are coached to take the rest of the test, which means my child and others could be illiterate and still get through," Lodge said.

The relevant education ministry officials were not available to explain the rationale behind the design of the tests last week. Dr Fitz Russell, the head of the Core Curriculum Unit, was said to be out doing field work, as were the other officials who had the competence to comment.

However, one official, who declined to be named, criticised the use of the term 'illiteracy'.

"We really don't talk about illiteracy anymore. What you have are different levels of reading. So there's really no child who can't read anything at all, once they can read something you can't say they are illiterate," he said.

"Utter Rubbish!" said a reading specialist, who asked not to be named. "This is a big, big issue in the United States, Britain and Canada - what constitutes reading and the best method of teaching it. There are many approaches - the linguistic, the phonetic and the whole language to name a few," she said.

"A few years ago, the emphasis was largely on phonics which emphasises the ability to break words up into sounds based on the letters. There has, in fact, been a shift away from phonics towards the whole language approach in which the child is taught to recognise whole words. The rationale being that phonics retards the ability to ready fluently as it forces them to spend too much time working the words out by sounds. The idea is that by the time they've finished working out the words, they've lost the meaning of the sentence. However, you can't separate the ability to comprehend from the ability to recognise words where reading is concerned and what we really recommend is an eclectic approach which draws on the best from each method," she said.

The reading specialist told the Sunday Observer that a test which placed more than half of its emphasis on labelling - the ability to match pictures to the corresponding words - could be considered unbalanced.

"There are several tests to determine the individual's ability to read and comprehend at the literal, inferential and critical levels. also tests to determine their phonetic ability. These tests go beyond word recognition," she said.

Valentine Milner is the author of a diagnostic reading test which is the only one of its kind in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean where it has been adopted in countries like Antigua and Dominica.

The test, which took her 12 years to develop, is now owned by the Mico Teachers' College's Centre for Assessment and Research (CARE) from which she is now retired.

Introduced in 1996, the initial section of the test requires the child to read a few short sentences for screening purposes. Then eight sets of specially compiled word lists are presented for the child to read. Based on the outcome, the child is given 12 graded reading passages which he/she is also required to demonstrate a comprehension of.

This test, which has to be administered individually, is considered to be one of the soundest testing tools, not only for determining whether a child is able to read, but in cases where they can't, why.

As a result, the waiting list of children whose parents want to get them into the centre to take the test is quite long.

"A child may have to wait for up to a year to get in," said Milner.

Such a test would, according to sources in the education ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity, effectively tackle Jamaica's reading problem - literacy levels have never been a matter to celebrate here - however, the resources to allow each child to take the test individually simply don't exist.

The CARE test is used widely in some schools for diagnostic purposes, but not everyone gets it. In lieu of that, children who enter the first grade of the public school system are given what is called the Grade One Inventory Test, which is administered in September each year and is designed to check their motor skills, visual and auditory abilities and inform the school of how ready each child is for school work.

The second exam is the Grade Three Diagnostic Test. As far as reading skills are concerned, it's supposed to help teachers identify specific strengths and weaknesses.

Current figures to indicate the performance of students who took the test this year were not available in time for the publication of this story. However, Thomas has promised to make them available.

Available statistics show that in 1999 when the test was introduced, a total of 41,128 students sat the Grade Four Literacy Test in 793 primary schools.

They were classified according to their performance in three categories:

'Questionable status' (Status Q), 'at risk' and 'enrichment' (not at risk).

Data from 84.0 per cent of the schools showed 18.5 per cent were classified as 'Status Q', 30.8 per cent at risk and 50.7 per cent enrichment.

In 2001, a total of 50 per cent of the 50,000 students who sat the Grade Four Test achieved full mastery, 20 per cent achieved near mastery and the remainder, numbering 15,000 students, were identified to be 'at risk', that is, they failed to show mastery in four main areas - word recognition, reading, comprehension and writing.




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