When I first began using literature to teach reading in my fourth-grade classroom, I encouraged my students to choose their own books, read them independently, and periodically write and talk to me about what they were reading. In time we developed portfolios of their best work for reading and writing. Yet I had a nagging feeling that some key element was missing from the assessment process. I searched for a way to measure comprehension that would support the natural act of reading and responding to a story and allow for diverse interpretations. By reading professional literature, I discovered performance assessments. Here's the process I use now.

  • Select a Text
  • Provide Writing Prompts
  • Work with Scoring Rubrics
  • Sample Rubric
  • Beyond Reading: Assessing Social Studies

Select a Text

The performance assessment I use for reading comprehension two or three times a year requires a common reading and writing task for the entire class. The first step is to select a text that your students have not read — a good story with a significant theme appropriate for your grade level, a clearly identifiable problem and resolution, well-developed characters, and high interest for your students.

Provide Writing Prompts

Once you have selected a text, think about designing a prompt — or writing task — to which students can respond in writing. If you teach primary children, encourage the use of invented spellings or approximations to help them freely express their ideas. Create a task that gets students to really think about the story. Then, along with sheets of lined paper on which they will write their final ideas, provide students with prewriting organizers such as webs, maps, and Venn diagrams, or lists of questions so students can make notes about their ideas. It's also a good idea to allow plenty of time — perhaps two class periods — for students to complete the performance assessment. Here are some sample writing prompts.
  • For primary students: Think about how you would tell a friend this story. Use a story map outline to help you remember all the important parts of a story. Then write about the story on lined paper.
  • For middle and upper elementary students: Characters, like people in real life, often change as a result of events. First use your planning sheets to make notes about:
    — what the character was like at the beginning of the story,
    — what the character was like at the end of the story, and
    — the events and people that led the character to change.
    Now use lined paper to write about how the character changed.
  • For students in any grade: Write about an important problem in the story. Tell why it is important and how it was solved. First, make notes on the planning sheet. Then, once you've organized your thoughts, write about the story on lined paper.

Work With Scoring Rubrics

To evaluate students' performance assessments, you need to rely on your own impressions of each child's performance and on a rubric — a table with numerical ratings and explanations of the characteristics of each number on the rating scale. For example, the rubric I use provides a scale of 0–3 to evaluate children's writings about a story problem.

With practice, you will find that scoring is a quick and reliable task, but there are a few things you should know about the process. When reading a student's response, refer to the rubric frequently. Ask yourself which descriptions best match the student's work, but keep in mind that there is some variation. For example, some papers might be a high 3, others a middle 3, and some a low 3. For this reason, you may wish to use pluses or minuses to make finer distinctions.

Whichever scoring system you use, focus only on the criteria in the rubric and avoid comparing students' papers. When in doubt, refer to the child's prewriting organizer. Younger children may write more on an organizer than on a blank sheet because it is a more directed task.

Sample Rubric

Notice that the rubric focuses on three important features you can modify to evaluate a wide variety of written responses in just about any curriculum area. Whatever rubric you develop, be sure to explain the criteria to your students before they begin to write. Knowing your expectations in advance will help most students produce better work.

3 — The written response is complete. It indicates a very good understanding of the story and its problem, and provides accurate, and relevant details, information, and supportive reasoning.

2 — The response is partial and indicates a fairly good understanding of the story. Although the information selected includes mostly accurate details and ideas, some may be irrelevant or unrelated to the story's problem.

1 — The response is fragmentary and indicates only minimal understanding of the story's problem. It includes mainly random details and irrelevant information.

0 — There is little or no response. Inaccurate and irrelevant details and ideas indicate a serious misunderstanding of the story.

Beyond Reading: Assessing Social Studies

Developing performance assessments in social studies — or any subject area for that matter — is a process much like the one I described for reading comprehension. Look for interesting nonfiction stories and articles that relate to your students' studies in history and social studies. (Cobblestone, Faces, and Scholastic News magazines are three good story resources.) Then design a prewriting organizer and a writing prompt that challenges students to think in-depth about the subject. Create a rubric for scoring the writing.

For example, as part of a study of immigration, sixth graders read "The Letters of Rosie O'Brien, a Convict in New South Wales" (Cobblestone, April and May 1987). On one side of the planning sheet, students listed words and phrases that they felt described Rosie. On the other side of the sheet they provided evidence from the story that backed up their opinions. The students were then asked to use their knowledge of Rosie's character to write a letter from Rosie to her sister.

Adele Fiderer has extensive experience as a classroom teacher and language arts developer. She is the author of Teaching Writing: A Workshop Approach and Practical Assessments for Literature-Based Reading Classrooms (both published by Scholastic Professional Books).