Best of Frank Serafini: Assessment Windows

I have used the term “windows,” as many other educators have before me, to describe the assessment instruments used to generate information about the students in my class. I chose the term windows because it describes the importance of observation and the limited scope of any one assessment technique. Teachers “look through” these assessment windows at their students during actual literacy events. These assessments are observational guides, designed to hone teachers powers of observation and make their assessments more meaningful.
There is no single window, no single assessment, that provides access to the complete child. In other words, each window reveals information about a child as much as it conceals information. Each assessment window calls forth different aspects of a child’s behaviors, abilities and dispositions. It is only through the use of a variety of assessment windows that a more extensive understanding of a child’s literate abilities emerges.
When through a window, we often find a bit of reflection of ourselves bouncing back. It is the same with these assessment windows. As we generate information about our students, we also generate information about our teaching, our classroom and ourselves. For example, when we review the artifacts collected in our students’ portfolios (treasuries), we can reflect on what we have taught during the year, what has been given the most attention and possibly what was missing.
            In addition, I have chosen the term window because assessment windows, just like windows in the real world, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some windows offer us a wide view of the world and some only a small portal through which to observe the events around us. It is the same with our assessment windows. Let’s say you were going to buy a new house and you wanted to get a sense of what it was like, but your realtor was running late and all you could do was walk around the house and look through the windows. No single window would allow you to see everything inside the house. However, by walking around and looking through a variety of windows, from a variety of vantage points, you might be able to build up an understanding of what the house contained. Eventually, your realtor arrives and opens the door for you to enter the premises, wander around and get a better sense of what is actually in the house. This works great for home buying. Unfortunately, we cannot open the door and wander around in our students’ minds or their experiences. All we can do is look through the assessment windows we create to understand what they are doing, are able to do, and need more support in doing.
            I have also purposefully chosen to use the term “generate” rather than the terms “gather” or “collect” to describe the process by which information is produced utilizing these assessment windows. I chose the word generate because it describes how teachers actively select, observe, create and revise the information they use to make instructional decisions. This information does not come to us ready made, it is generated through the processes and instruments we select and the knowledge base we bring to the observed learning events. Different assessment windows generate different information. In other words, we are only able to see our students through the windows and opportunities we make available. Each window limits our view, and at the same time makes observation and generating information possible. Because of this, we need to be careful about the assessment windows and techniques we select because they determine in part how we come to know our students as readers.
Sources of Information
            In order to understand the variety of assessment windows we might utilize to generate information, we need to first consider the types of information that are available to the classroom teacher. In other words, what will we observe, where and when will we make our observations, what information is of value, and how does this information present itself? Basically, we have available to us the same types of information that qualitative researchers draw upon when conducting research studies. The three main sources of information we may draw upon to understand students’ literate abilities are:
  1. Artifacts – the products students create when reading and responding to what is being read. Anything tangible that can be collected and put in a portfolio is an artifact. For example, literature response notebook entries, charts, response activities, or book reviews are all types of artifacts.
  2. Observations – the notes we create by watching students engage in literate activities. For example, observing students’ responses during whole group read alouds, notes taken during a literature discussion, general observational notes about students’ reading preferences or selection of books, or notes taken when listening to a student read aloud.
  3. Interactions – the discussions and communications we have with students on a daily basis. Unlike observations, interactions require the teacher to interact with the student, rather than passively observe. This type of information is generated by asking particular questions from an interview protocol, or conducting daily “check-in conferences” with students. 
These sources of information are found in a variety of settings and provide the classroom teacher with the information necessary to make more effective decisions regarding instructional approaches, learning experiences and interventions. For example, we can observe students preparing to read, selecting a book and choosing to sit in a particular place to read. We can use a particular instrument to observe readers during the act of reading, or we can look at what they create when they have finished reading. The following chart (Figure 2.2) gives some examples of the types of questions teachers can ask about readers before, during, and after reading a text.

Sources of Information About Reading
1. Before Reading
What strategies do students use for selecting a text?
How does a student approach a text? (Do they skim through it? Read the title page? Look at the end pages and other peritextual information?)
Are students able to state their purposes for reading a particular text?
When and where do students choose to read?
2. During Reading
Does the student demonstrate immediate emotional reactions - laugh, cry etc.
Is the student able to code or mark important passages in the text during reading for further inquiry?
Is the student able to stop and this aloud during his or her reading? What does the student talk about?
As a student reads a text, what strategies does he or she employ? Is the student fluently reading, or is her or his reading choppy? Is the student able to adjust his or her rate of reading to ensure understanding?
3. After Reading:
Is a student able to talk about the text when finished? Can he or she paraphrase or summarize what has been read? Does the student draw inferences from the text?
Can students write a response entry in their literature response notebook?
Are students able to answer questions about what has been read?
Can students respond in other ways (write a book review, draw a picture, act ot the story) to what has been read?

We, as teachers, have available to us a wide variety of information that can be used to provide evidence of a student’s reading processes, preferences and strategies. Each source provides a different type of information which helps us to come to know our students as readers and literate beings. Various assessment windows or data generating techniques are used to tap into these sources of information, and it is to these assessment windows and observational techniques I now turn.
Efficient Assessment Windows
            I have relied upon many different assessment windows over my years of experience as a classroom teacher in order to come to know my students as readers and writers. Some windows have generated a wealth of information, while others were not worth the time I spent using them, either because they took too much time away from my instruction, or the information they provided was not very helpful in understanding my students. The windows I will share with you in this chapter are the ones that provided the most information with the least amount of interruption to my teaching. In addition, they generated information during actual reading events, not the contrived scenarios that mimic real reading that are part of so many standardized tests. It is because of these characteristics I call them “efficient” assessment windows. 

My Top Ten Efficient Assessment Windows
  1. Observational Records
  2. Observational Checklists
  3. Reading Interviews and Conferences
  4. Reading Response Notebooks
  5. Oral Reading Analyses
  6. Think Aloud Protocols
  7. Retellings
  8. Reflection Logs
  9. Book Reviews
  10. Treasuries


  1. I enjoyed reading this blog post around assessments. I am currently a first grade teacher and a K-5 literacy coach. We just wrapped up our second round (out of four) of our formal assessments in our district and are using this data to drive our instruction for the next few weeks. Our district uses the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) and the Observational Survey of Early Literacy Achievement by Marie Clay. This provides a systematic way of capturing early reading and writing behaviors and is the primary assessment tool used in Reading Recovery, which our district is fortunate to have for our most at-risk 1st graders. Our K and 1 teachers use the observation survey as well.

    Your post validates the big idea that our district coaches are trying to help classroom teachers understand around formal assessments. Administering a formal assessment to a child is just one small way we can see into the child we have in front of us, which then also allows us to reflect on our teaching practices. Many teachers find the formal assessments a daunting task and do not like to take time out of their day to administer them. They do them, they just complain about doing them.

    We are hoping to get teachers to understand that part of administering an assessment (formal or informal) is to observe the child we have in front of us, and the decisions they are making as a reader or a writer. This is only one window into that child, understanding that this is not THE child. Collecting artifacts, observations and interactions are ways to see the child in a variety of settings and can provide valuable information to the teacher to guide his/her instruction.

    I look forward to reading more of your blog and am hoping to purchase your Classroom Reading Assessments book.

  2. Thank you for your considered comment. I agree that formal assessments have serious drawbacks, and that our ficus should be on coming to know children in more diverse ways.


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