Tests exist to gauge early performance; Reading inventory finds strengths, weaknesses in younger students

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Once a child enters third grade in Texas, his parents get an objective, annual look at how he’s doing: the state standardized test. Tests have changed over the years – from TABS to TEAMS to TAAS to TAKS – but since the 1980s there have been hard data to judge a child’s progress.

But what if your child isn’t yet in third grade? How do you know if she’s up to speed?

Fear not, there’s a test for you, too.

The TPRI – Texas Primary Reading Inventory – isn’t nearly as familiar as its relatives, partly because school districts don’t often advertise it to parents. Getting good details on how your child performed is probably up to you.

About 90 percent of Texas school districts give the TPRI to kindergartners and first- and second-graders. Texas law requires that K-2 students be given some sort of early reading assessment. Districts can give whatever exam they like, but the TPRI is by far the most popular.

State law requires that districts send home some information to parents on how their child performed. But what you get in the mail is often a bare-bones form letter; many parents just get a form marking a child as “developed” or “still developing” in one or two categories. What little detail there is comes with terms such as “Graphophonemic Knowledge” and “Phonemic Awareness.”

“I don’t think schools do enough to keep parents involved in how their kids are doing,” said Wes Hoover, president of the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, a nonprofit research organization in Austin. “My sense is that information is probably not very well distributed.”

For instance, talking to the teacher about the results might reveal that your child has more difficulty distinguishing sounds at the beginning of words than at the end, or that her vocabulary needs work. In Plano, for instance, teachers go over test results in parent conferences, detailing areas of weakness and how parents can help teachers fix them.

“You can find out specifically where the difficulties are and how you as a parent can help them – what you can do at home and what the teacher will be doing at school,” said Christie Duke, Plano’s coordinator of reading and language arts.

The TPRI has two sections: a quick screening section given to every child and a more detailed inventory section. The inventory section is designed to identify weaknesses in children having trouble. So if a student does well enough on the screening portion, teachers often skip the inventory portion altogether.

But valuable information can still be drawn from the inventory portion – even for strong students. It covers several areas the screening portion doesn’t, such as listening comprehension and reading fluency. As a result, some districts have decided to give the complete test to all students.

Be sure to ask how your district handles it, and consider asking for your child to be given the full test.

“The parents teachers respond to are the ones who make the effort to get involved,” Dr. Hoover said.

Many of the reading tests districts use are available for parents to administer on their own. Some, such as the Yopp-Singer Test, are free and available online; others cost $10 or $20. But while home testing can provide valuable information, Dr. Hoover cautioned against parents taking matters into their own hands.

“What parents don’t have that teachers do is the ability to compare their kids against other kids,” he said. “They can overreact when their child is a little behind in one area or another. They can help most by being supportive and coordinating with the teacher.”