There is no better way to determine the quality of an assessment than by evaluating its test questions.

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), a national non-profit that represents public officials who lead state education departments, says that good tests should be aligned with rigorous academic standards. Questions on tests should be designed to measure a student’s ability to “synthesize material from multiple sources, analyze problems, and explain and justify problems.”

Beginning this month, The Prime is giving our readers a look under the hood, so to speak, of the thought process that goes into the production of New Meridian test questions and performance tasks. This month, we’re examining a retired Research Simulation Task (RST) created for 4th grade assessments.

Laura Beltchenko, a literacy and educational professional from Libertyville, Illinois, is one of several dozen accomplished educators involved in New Meridian’s multi-state collaborative process of developing assessment items. We asked her to provide an analysis of a specific test question that asks students to identify the main idea of a 750-word passage titled “Grandpa’s Hobbit House.”

Beltchenko told us that some of the inherent strengths of this particular performance task are apparent from the outset.

“What I like about the opening scenario is that it tells students what they’ll be reading, and then it tells them they will need to review sources. Students know they are going to be gathering information about different houses, and then writing an essay,” she says. “Students have a purpose for reading as well as an understanding of what they need to accomplish to fulfill the assessment task.”

Students transitioning from 3rd grade to 4th grade should be able to understand the explicit meaning of a passage and make logical inferences (understand information not directly stated) from the text. This type of questioning, Beltchenko says, “is designed to measure inferential comprehension that is a critically important literacy skill.”

“Questions requiring inferential reading and comprehension require students to do some close reading and thinking,” she explains. “Thus, by the time students are working on 4th grade standards, they are learning how to extract answers from passages that are not only explicitly stated, but also inferred. This emphasis on teaching students how to read between the lines continues all the way to the 12th grade and beyond.”

Beltchenko also points out a simple formatting design that is critical for good test design: paragraphs are numbered in the text.

“If we are to help students comprehend what their reading, knowing where to locate textual evidence supports students’ retrieval of necessary information to complete a task,” she says. “Numbered paragraphs allow students to pin point where to find evidence in the text. Teachers can model this strategy in the classroom, asking students to locate textual evidence, for example, in paragraph four.  All students become actively engaged in close reading of that paragraph to retrieve information to contribute to the discussion or answer a question. This teacher modeling helps students to use this strategy to become skillful independent readers.”

Beltchenko says that the goal of every teacher should be to develop students into strategic readers of literary and informational text. Once developed, that skillset can be employed in virtually any reading scenario. Educators call it “teaching for transfer.”

“When students can learn skills and strategies to comprehend complex texts, they can then take those practices and transfer them to virtually any reading they may encounter,” says Beltchenko.

Laura Beltchenko has been in the profession of educating students and educators for over 35 years. Her career in public education includes classroom teacher, reading specialist, teacher and coordinator of gifted education programs as well as an associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction in a Chicago suburban K-12 school district.