Suc­cess. offers more than fifty syn­onyms for the word “suc­cess”… accom­plish­ment, fame, hap­pi­ness, progress, tri­umph, and vic­to­ry all have a place on the list. With test­ing hys­te­ria mak­ing the rounds in schools and class­rooms every­where, the def­i­n­i­tion of suc­cess as it relates to read­ing, has like­ly weighed heav­i­ly on the minds and hearts of many teach­ers. How do we mea­sure read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy? How do we mea­sure suc­cess? I firm­ly believe that it is both illu­sive and dan­ger­ous to decide whether a child has been suc­cess­ful by turn­ing only to a score on a high-stakes read­ing test.

Sad­ly, in Min­neso­ta, our leg­is­la­tors have deemed a pro­fi­cient score of 350 on the third-grade read­ing MCA such a sig­nif­i­cant mea­sure of suc­cess that for years our state has used it as a way to reward schools with what they call “Lit­er­a­cy Incen­tive Aid” which is explained in A Pub­li­ca­tion of the Min­neso­ta House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Fis­cal Analy­sis Depart­ment (p. 48):

Schools are eli­gi­ble for addi­tion­al aid based on how well stu­dents in the third grade read (called “Pro­fi­cien­cy Aid”), and how much progress is being made between the third and fourth grades in read­ing skills (called “Growth Aid”). Pro­fi­cien­cy aid is cal­cu­lat­ed by mul­ti­ply­ing $530 times the aver­age per­cent­age of stu­dents in a school that meet or exceed pro­fi­cien­cy over the cur­rent year and pre­vi­ous two years on the third-grade read­ing por­tion of the Min­neso­ta Com­pre­hen­sive Assess­ment, mul­ti­plied by the num­ber of stu­dents enrolled in the third grade at the school in the pre­vi­ous year. Sim­i­lar­ly, Growth aid is cal­cu­lat­ed by mul­ti­ply­ing $530 times the per­cent­age of stu­dents that make medi­um or high growth on the fourth-grade read­ing Min­neso­ta Com­pre­hen­sive Assess­ment mul­ti­plied by the pre­vi­ous year’s fourth grade stu­dent count. [124D.98]

Let’s think about that for a moment. Basi­cal­ly, this “read­ing boun­ty” that is placed on the heads of our stu­dents offers schools with few­er Eng­lish Lan­guage Learn­er stu­dents, schools with few­er stu­dents who receive free or reduced lunch, and schools with few­er Spe­cial Edu­ca­tion stu­dents, a hefty finan­cial boost for every stu­dent who attains that score of 350. There seems to be lit­tle regard for the fact that stu­dents from these demo­graph­ic groups already face a seri­ous oppor­tu­ni­ty gap and that gap is a pre-exist­ing con­di­tion that is fur­ther exas­per­at­ed by this mod­el of school fund­ing. In oth­er words, the rich get rich­er, while the poor con­tin­ue to struggle.

How I wish I could con­vince our leg­is­la­tors that defin­ing read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy or suc­cess as a score of 350 on the read­ing MCA is sim­ply not the only, and espe­cial­ly not the best, way to deter­mine whether a diverse group of eight- and nine-year old kids are suc­cess­ful in terms of lit­er­a­cy. I am con­vinced that I have plen­ty of data in addi­tion to the MCA score, both the “hard” and “soft” kind, that paints a bet­ter pic­ture of whether or not my stu­dents have attained lit­er­a­cy suc­cess. You name it, I’ve got it. Sum­ma­tive, for­ma­tive, for­mal, infor­mal, flu­en­cy CBMs, anec­do­tal con­fer­ence notes, run­ning records, NWEA MAP data, essays, opin­ion writ­ing, research reports, writ­ing in response to read­ing … the list goes on and on. A 350 is cer­tain­ly not the only way to mea­sure lit­er­a­cy suc­cess in Room 212. Just as impor­tant (if not more impor­tant) are the con­ver­sa­tions, deep-think­ing, and per­son­al reflec­tions my stu­dents share with me and each oth­er on a dai­ly basis.

Front DeskAs easy as it is to be dis­cour­aged and feel like I’m the one who has failed when some of my bril­liant, hard-work­ing and oh-so-wise stu­dents come up short of that mea­sure of suc­cess, aka a 350, I need only to call up mem­o­ries of a recent read-aloud moment in Room 212. The book, Front Desk, by Kel­ly Yang, tells the sto­ry of Mia Tang, a deter­mined, resource­ful and coura­geous ten-year-old who dis­cov­ers the pow­er of the writ­ten word. Mia and her par­ents are Chi­nese immi­grants, work­ing end­less hours at the Calivista Motel under the scruti­ny of the heart­less own­er, Mr. Yao in the ear­ly 1990s. Mia befriends Lupe, anoth­er immi­grant in her class, whose fam­i­ly came to the Unit­ed States from Mex­i­co. The two girls dis­cov­er they were both hid­ing sim­i­lar secrets that were attempts to cov­er up the harsh real­i­ties of their lives. Once they real­ize they could be vul­ner­a­ble with each oth­er, they share a great deal more about their inner most thoughts and feel­ings. Much like my reflec­tions and won­der­ing about what it means to be suc­cess­ful, Mia shared the following:

I was curi­ous what Lupe thought of as “suc­cess­ful.” Every­body seemed to have dif­fer­ent cri­te­ria. I used to think being suc­cess­ful meant hav­ing enough to eat…

When I asked Lupe, she put two fin­gers to her chin and thought real hard. “I think being suc­cess­ful in this coun­try means hav­ing a liv­ing room with­out a bed in it,” she decided.

After read­ing that excerpt to my incred­i­ble kids, we dug deep­er into the con­ver­sa­tion and opin­ions shared by Mia and Lupe. There was a con­sen­sus that Mia was right about peo­ple hav­ing very dif­fer­ent ideas about what it might mean to be suc­cess­ful. Some kids shared their def­i­n­i­tion and oth­ers were very qui­et. I invit­ed the class to think more about the top­ic of being suc­cess­ful and to con­sid­er writ­ing about what it means to them. A num­ber of kids accept­ed the invitation.

If only that “Lit­er­a­cy Incen­tive Aid” could include cri­te­ria beyond an MCA test score of 350. I would like to believe that the thought­ful reflec­tions shared by my stu­dents would con­vince our leg­is­la­tors that pro­fi­cien­cy is more than a num­ber derived from a bunch of cor­rect answers to mul­ti­ple-choice ques­tions about read­ing pas­sages stu­dents may have lit­tle inter­est in read­ing. 

Two of my favorite stu­dent responses:

success is
Suc­cess­ful means that you do some­thing you’ve always want­ed to do and it went how you wanted.
success is
Suc­cess­ful means hav­ing a house and a dog, hav­ing a tree­house, hav­ing a gar­den, learn­ing a lot, going to college.

After all, isn’t being a suc­cess­ful read­er as much about what read­ing does to our heart as it is about what read­ing does to our head? I doubt there will ever be a stan­dard­ized test that can ade­quate­ly mea­sure the impact of read­ing on one’s heart. How­ev­er, if there were such a thing, there is no doubt that all of my stu­dents would sur­pass a 350.

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