School study surprise: do teachers get it wrong?

Monday, 20 September 1999

A study of South Australian primary school teachers has suggested that a majority of teachers' judgments about the reading achievements of young reception and primary school children may be substantially wrong.

The study indicated that more than one third of teachers' assessments were in error by 12 months when estimating actual reading age, as indicated by a widely used test for accuracy and comprehension. It also found the teachers had a highly significant tendency to overestimate the reading skills of low-achieving students. Teachers' poor capacity to judge reading age may have serious implications for their ability to identify students who may need special assistance, according to the study's authors.

The study was carried out as part of an Honours thesis by student Caroline Bates and reported in a paper by Ms Bates and Associate Professor Ted Nettelbeck (Department of Psychology).

While past teaching tradition has focused on assessment methods such as comparison and ranking of students, contemporary educators are more concerned with the accomplishments of individual students and what is needed for their progress. However, Dr Nettelbeck argues that measuring students' performance against normative standards is important, particularly when identifying children who are struggling.

"From a psychological point of view, in any other area of slower development the focus is on early intervention," he says. "I think it is important to detect any sign of delayed reading achievement at an early age."

The study casts doubt on teachers' ability to do this. It says that if teachers are to be in a position to intervene effectively when a child is falling behind age-level peers, they should be able to make "reasonably accurate assessments of reading achievement".

The study, conducted in 1997, involved 29 reception to Year 4 teachers in South Australia. More than 100 students aged between six and eight years participated.

Teachers were asked to estimate their children's reading accuracy and reading comprehension achievements scores, in terms of age peers. Analysis of the actual achievements of the children, as measured by a widely-used test - the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability, Revised - showed significant discrepancies when compared with the teachers' assessments.

Students' reading accuracy in a lower achievement group was appreciably overestimated. Essentially the same outcome was found for reading comprehension.

About 32% of judgments for reading accuracy and 40% for reading comprehension were more than 12 months in error and these large errors were made at least once by about two-thirds of teachers. In total, about 75% of teachers' judgments were inaccurate, to an extent thought by the authors to be likely to cause many parents concern.

"These teachers misjudged student reading age by more than six months for reading accuracy and seven months for reading comprehension," the paper says.

 

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Dr Ted Nettelbeck
The University of Adelaide
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