You’re a conscientious teacher. You know your students are working at different levels and have different learning styles. You want to meet them each where they are, so you’ve read up on differentiation strategies. You’ve planned out tiered activities for your students, maybe varying the complexity of the tasks you assign them, or maybe giving different groups of students different resources to work with.
Now, you’re at the end of a unit, and it’s assessment time. Do you differentiate that too, or do all of your students complete the same assessment?
Up until a few years back, I fell into the latter camp. I put a lot of thought into how I would differentiate my instruction, but at the end of the unit, all of my students took the same test. I had to do it that way, didn’t I? Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair… right?
Then one day it hit me: It was much less fair to extend different levels and types of support to my students during instructional time, but not to do the same on their assessments. If I truly believed that I could best serve my students through differentiated instruction (and I do!), then I needed to find a way to extend those differentiation strategies to their assessments as well.
The question was how to do it. I admittedly have a tendency to get very inspired and dream up ideas that I think are either going to be pedagogically fantastic or just really super fun, and they end up being complicated and challenging and logistically impossible to pull off. I was worried that trying to differentiate assessments might be another one of these situations. If I wanted to create three tiers for my reading assessments (“on level”, “below level”, and “challenge”), would I then have to find three different texts, write three sets of comprehension and interpretation questions, keep straight how many copies I needed of each, and manage to make those copies without getting them mixed up with each other, then make sure that each person got the right questions to go with the right text? Where would I find the time for that? And how would I manage all that paper? Would grading become a nightmare?
Maybe you have some of the same questions. You’re not alone. These are very real and very valid concerns. As teachers, we are too often overworked and underpaid, and there are limits to what any one human being can reasonably be expected to accomplish. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad teacher if you don’t implement a particular pedagogical strategy in your classroom that you simply do not have the time, energy, or resources for, no matter how wonderful that strategy may be. You. Are. Human. And that is okay.
But when it comes to differentiating assessments, I’ve got some great news! It is possible to do this in a way that doesn’t create a massive logistical headache! In the rest of this post, I’ll walk you step-by-step through the strategies I use to create differentiated assessments using tiered texts. I primarily use this system for giving reading assessments in my Spanish classes, but the method could be adapted to many other subjects and/or assessment types.
Why Is It Important To Differentiate Assessments?
Before I outline my strategy for creating tiered reading assessments in Spanish, I want to back up a step and discuss why it’s important to differentiate assessments in the first place. You’re likely already on board if you’ve found your way to this post, but just in case you could still use some convincing, here are a few things to think about.
First, let’s consider the purpose of an assessment. We assess our students in order to see where they’re at. What do they know, and what can they do? Where do they excel, and what do they still need help with? We want to get the most accurate picture possible of their current level of skill and understanding, because then we can best know how to help them move forward.
If I ask all of my students to work with the same text on their reading assessments, then I won’t be fully capturing their proficiency level in reading comprehension in Spanish. For example, if I have a struggling student who isn’t quite ready for texts that would be considered “on level,” then testing them using an on-level text will affect their ability to perform on every portion of the reading assessment.
Maybe this student is absolutely fantastic at using contextual clues to decipher the meaning of unknown words. But if I give them a text in which too great of a percentage of those words are unknown, they’re not going to have enough context to work with, and I’ll never get to see the skill they have in figuring out unknown words. If, on the other hand, I give them a text that is at their level, then they will be able to show me all the things that they CAN do in Spanish.
On the other end of the spectrum, if I give my superstars texts that are much easier than what they’re able to handle at that moment, I’m placing an upper limit on what they can demonstrate on a test, and I won’t see the full range of what they’re able to do.
This is why differentiating reading assessments matters. By providing students with tiered texts, we can get a more complete and more accurate picture of their current proficiency level, and in so doing, we’ll be better situated to help them going forward.
So now it’s time to answer the big question: How? I’ve come up with a system that has let me create tiered reading assessments on multiple levels without going insane, which I’ll share with you now!
How to Create Differentiated Reading Assessments
Step 1: Prepare your texts
First things first, you need to find or create your texts. In a world language classroom, I highly recommend finding authentic texts rather than writing your own, as this gives the best measure of what students can do in the real world, and also helps keep students engaged.
You want to start by selecting your “on-level” text, as this should be your benchmark. (What this looks like will vary widely from class to class and level to level, so I won’t try to generalize advice on how to do this, but feel free to reach out via email or connect with me on social media if you want help!)
Next, look for a text on the same topic and in the same genre that will be a bit easier to read than your on-level text. Some textual elements to look for that will provide extra support for students include:
- Fewer words on the page
- More familiar vocabulary, including cognates
- More visual support
- Text arranged in smaller chunks, such as single words, short phrases, or simple sentences
Finally, select a text on the same topic and in the same genre that will provide more of a challenge to your students. In this case, you might look for the following elements:
- More words on the page
- Greater range of vocabulary
- Less visual support
- Text arranged in longer or more complex chunks, such as compound or complex sentences or short paragraphs
Step 2: Prepare your questions
Now that you have your texts, you need to write your test questions. Here’s where the magic comes in! My reading assessments follow a three-part structure: Comprehension, Interpretation: Language, & Interpretation: Content, and I’ve developed strategies for assessing each of these areas on three different reading passages without having to create three different tests! If you have a different approach to assessing reading comprehension, or you’re looking to differentiate a different type of assessment, no worries! These strategies should still work for you, you just might need to make some adjustments so that they fit with your assessment style.
Strategy 1: Use open-ended questions
A great way to see how well a student has comprehended a text is to ask them to summarize it in their own words. I usually phrase this along the lines of: “If a friend who doesn’t speak Spanish asked you what this reading passage is about, how would you summarize it for them in one or two sentences?” This lets me see if they understand the main idea of the text and if they can differentiate between the main idea and supporting details, but I don’t have to go crazy creating multiple comprehension questions for each individual text.
You can use open-ended questions for more than just the main idea, too! For example, you could ask about the author’s purpose, the intended audience, the major themes, the tone of the piece, or the most/least important details — anything you can frame as an open-ended question can be answered by your students, regardless of which text they are working with!
Strategy 2: Use highlighters
This strategy is probably my absolute favorite. You can use highlighters to direct your students’ attention to particular words or phrases in each individual text, and then ask questions about those words. You can even use different colors of highlighting to ask multiple questions about specific words. (Pro tip: It’s much more efficient to highlight the texts on your computer before you print them out than to go through each copy with an old-fashioned highlighter in hand. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure that out.)
I especially like to use highlighting when crafting my linguistic interpretation questions. For example, first I might pick out two words on each text that I don’t think my students are likely to know. (I usually try to find one that I think students can figure out using contextual clues, and one I think they might be able to puzzle out by using word roots and other linguistic clues). I will highlight those words in, say, orange, and then on the test itself, the directions will read: “Find the two words highlighted in orange. For each, write down the word, make your best guess as to what it means, and explain your reasoning.” This way, I can use the same directions for all of my students, regardless of the text they are working with, rather than creating three separate tests with the specific words printed on each.
Another example of how I use highlighting to assess my students’ abilities in linguistic interpretation is to have them distinguish between essential and non-essential words. For example, in the sentence “Juan está feliz,” “feliz” is essential, because without it, you can’t understand how Juan is feeling, and therefore, you don’t understand the main idea of the sentence. But “está” is simply serving a grammatical function. Even if we ignore that word completely, as long as we understand “Juan — feliz,” we still know what the author is trying to tell us.
I find four words on each text, two essential terms and two of which aren’t necessary for comprehension, and I highlight them all in a new color (different from the one I used for checking my students’ ability to decipher the meaning of unknown words), such as green. On the test, I provide two boxes, labeled “essential” and “non-essential,” and I direct my students to find the four words highlighted in green. The test then asks: “If you didn’t know any of these words, and I was only going to let you look up two words, which two would you feel were most essential for understanding the text, and which two would you feel were less essential for getting the main idea of that text?” Because the words are identified on the texts themselves, thanks to the highlighting, I can pose the question identically to each of my students, regardless of which text they are working with. This eliminates the need for creating multiple versions of the test!
Strategy 3: Use multiple choice questions to your advantage
Multiple choice questions will always have one (or more) correct answer(s), as well as some possibilities that are there as distractors or red herrings. When creating reading assessment questions for three different texts, you can simply use the correct answer for one text as a distractor for the others!
For example, you could ask students: “Of the following details listed below, which ones appear in the reading passage? Check off each correct answer, and label it where it appears in the text.” This will let you check how well your students understand the details of the text they are working with. You might include three details from each reading passage, so that each student is presented with nine possibilities, only three of which can be found in their text. Even if you weren’t differentiating the reading assessment, you would still include both correct and incorrect answers for a question like this. We can simply take advantage of that to let us create one test question that covers all three texts!
While it might seem like multiple choice questions are best suited to comprehension questions, you can also use this strategy for interpretation questions. For example, I like to ask: “Which of the following inferences could best be made as a result of reading this text?” Just like I would do if I were only creating one version of the test, I want to end up with one answer for each text that I think is the best, and then a couple of distractor answers. But in this case, the best answer for one text will be one of the distractors for the others! I might throw in a fourth possibility that isn’t supported by any of the texts, or I might just leave the question with three possible choices, but either way, I’ve managed to create one question that I can use for all three of the reading passages.
One thing to note here: I always, always, always ask my students to justify their answers when I give them multiple choice questions. This lets me see if a correct answer is due to guessing, or if it reflects genuine understanding. It also lets me give students credit if their answer is different from what I had in mind — as long as they can justify it, and their justification makes sense, I’ll happily give them credit! I might point out why I think a different answer is a better choice, but more than once, I’ve had a student blow my mind with a really thoughtful response that I simply hadn’t considered. If I hadn’t asked them to justify their answers, I would have missed that thoughtfulness and just marked them wrong.
Those are my three favorite strategies for creating a differentiated assessment, where you can create and print one test that will work for three different leveled texts!
So, now that you have your differentiated assessment ready to go, how will you put it into practice in your classroom?
How to Assign Levels on Differentiated Reading Assessments
Option 1: Let your students choose
- Empowers students to take control of their own learning
- Boosts student confidence
- Uses more paper, since you have to have enough copies available for each student to pick any of the three texts)
- Students aren’t always the best judges of their abilities, so they may pick a level that you know is either too challenging or too easy for them
- Will you let your students look at all three texts before making their decision, or do you want them to pick their level before previewing the texts?
- What will you do if a student wants to change level partway through the test?
- How will you protect each student’s privacy, so that no one feels awkward or uncomfortable selecting a certain level in front of their peers?
If you let your students choose, I would recommend giving each student all three texts and having them select their level quietly at their desks, so that no one feels put on the spot. If you direct them not to write anything on the texts they are not using, you can save them for future semesters.
Option 2: You choose the most appropriate level for each student
- Avoids the problem of students selecting a text that isn’t the best choice for them
- Uses less paper, since you know how many copies you need of each text
- Can be challenging to distribute the materials efficiently while making sure that each student receives the correct text
- Students may be unhappy with the level that was selected for them
- What data will you use to decide which text to give each student?
- Will you tell your students that you are using tiered texts, and if so, will you do so before or after the assessment?
Option 3: You work together to determine the appropriate level for each student
- Empowers students to feel like they have control over their own learning
- Students won’t end up with a text that is far too challenging or easy for them
- Can be time-consuming to collaborate with each student individually
- How will you handle this logistically? One possibility is to have students indicate which level they would like to work with a few days ahead of time, and only conference with those you feel would be better served by a different choice
- What will you do if you and a student do not agree, even after conferencing? Will you prioritize your expertise or their autonomy?
Personally, I’ve tried each one of these methods for assigning levels on differentiated assessments, and I haven’t found that one method is consistently better than the others. I tend to mix it up in my classes. I might let my students choose their level on the first assessment, and then use their performance on that test to determine what level I will give them on the next one. Or, I might add a comment on their rubric with a suggestion about which level I think they should select next time.
How To Grade Differentiated Assessments
First of all, let me say that I hate grades. I wish I could do away with them entirely. I’d much rather give students feedback about their current proficiency level in various areas and help them identify their next steps, without converting any of that into an artificial number. (I’ve got a future post planned on how I deal with grades in a proficiency-based classroom — make sure to subscribe to my blog to get notified when that post comes out!)
However, I am required to assign grades, so here’s what I do. First of all, when I conduct reading assessments, I don’t simply assign a grade based on the percentage of correct answers. Instead, I use a rubric that describes student performance in four areas, three of which I mentioned previously: Comprehension, Interpretation: Language, and Interpretation: Content. The rubric includes descriptors for what a student will be able to do in each of these areas if they are working on level, above level, or below level, and I look at their tests holistically when deciding where they fall.
The fourth category I include on the rubric is text type, because that is one measure of a student’s proficiency. What kinds of texts are they able to handle? How much support do they need? This is where I account for the tiered texts. Students who are working with the on-level text score a 3, students working with the challenge text score a 4, and students working with the text that provides extra support score a 2.
Including text type on my rubric lets me give my students additional feedback about their current proficiency level and encourages students to work towards being able to handle more challenging texts. But by providing students with tiered texts on their reading assessments, I make sure that text type is only reflected in that one line of the grading rubric, and I get a more accurate view of their comprehension, linguistic interpretation skills, and ability to do higher level thinking tasks with the texts. And by using the three strategies I outlined in this post (open-ended questions, highlighting the texts, and using multiple choice questions strategically), I can do all of this without spending hours at the photocopier. And I know we can all appreciate that!
I hope this has been inspiring to you, and I’d be happy to chat with you more about any of these strategies, or help walk you through the process of creating a differentiated assessment from scratch!
What do you think? Are you ready to try differentiating your assessments? Do you have any other strategies you use to create differentiated assessments? Let me know in the comments, or reach out via email or social media!