This school year Fairfax County Public Schools, the 10th largest school division in the United States, adopted the iReady assessment as a universal screener across all of its elementary schools. Students in grades K-6 take these assessments individually on the computer three times per year, and the results are made available to both teachers and parents.
According to Curriculum Associates, the company that makes iReady, these assessments are an “adaptive Diagnostic for reading and mathematics [that] pinpoints student need down to the sub-skill level, and [provides] ongoing progress monitoring [to] show whether students are on track to achieve end-of-year targets.”
The Fairfax County Public Schools website further asserts that iReady is a “tool that has the potential to streamline Responsive Instruction processes, promote early identification and remediation of difficulties and improve student achievement.”
While I have found this assessment deeply troubling all year, it has taken me a while to be able to articulate exactly why I think this assessment is so dangerous, and why I think we need to use our voices as teachers, administrators and parents to speak out against it.*
So, let’s get back to the claim in the title of this blog post. iReady is dangerous. This might sound like hyperbole. After all, this is just a test, right? In this era of public schooling, children take many assessments, some more useful than others, so what’s the big deal with iReady?
I could spend this blog post writing about how these tests are designed to be short, but often stretch on for hours, but I won’t.
I could spend this blog post writing about how this assessment includes test items that are mathematically inaccurate or misleading, but I won’t. (Ok, I actually will just a little at the end of this blog post.)
These things make the test a bad test, but what makes it truly dangerous is the way iReady reports data and makes suggestions for instruction. Stick with me for a moment as I explain how this works.
After a student takes the iReady screener in the area of mathematics, the teacher can download individual and class reports. Each child receives an overall scale score for the math assessment as a whole, as well as a scale score in each of the four domains of 1) number and operations, 2) algebra and algebraic thinking, 3) measurement and data, and 4) geometry.
Based on the scores, iReady generates a report for each student for each of the domains. The report offers a bulleted list of what the student can do and next steps for instruction. However, if you take a look at the finer print you’ll learn that these reports are not generated from the specific questions that the child answered correctly or incorrectly, but rather are a generic list based on what iReady thinks that students who score in this same range in this domain likely need.
(Part of FCPS training for school leaders on understanding iReady data.)
The teacher can never see the questions the child answered correctly or incorrectly, nor can she even access a description of the kinds of questions the child answered correctly or incorrectly. The most a teacher will ever know is that a child scored poorly, for example, in number and operations. Folks, that is a giant category, and far too broad to be actionable.
But above all else, the iReady Universal Screener is a dangerous assessment because it is a dehumanizing assessment. The test strips away all evidence of the students’ thinking, of her mathematical identity, and instead assigns broad and largely meaningless labels. The test boils down a student’s entire mathematical identity to a generic list of skills that “students like her” generally need, according to iReady. And yet despite its lumping of students into broad categories, iReady certainly doesn’t hesitate to offer very specific information about what a child likely can do and what next instructional steps should be.
On paper, one of the goals of iReady is to increase equity, to make sure everyone has access to understanding in mathematics. I’ve learned from thoughtful folks who are dedicated to equity in mathematics educations (including Professors Rochelle Gutiérrez,Danny Martin, and Christopher Emdin) that we must question practices that purport to increase equity but actually serve to reinforce the status quo. iReady, and assessments of this nature, overwhelming identify poor students and students of color as most in need of intervention.
So, what does that mean for these students’ instruction? What does it mean for how we position teachers to view their students? Will it mean that instead of rich mathematical experiences these students are relegated to computer-based or scripted intervention (conveniently sold by the same company that makes the assessment)? Will it mean that these students are denied access to the bigger picture of what it means to do mathematics and be a mathematician and are instead are fed a steady diet of, in the words of the makers of iReady, tiny discrete skills “down to the sub-skill level”?
FCPS defends critique of the iReady assessment by asserting that teachers should use iReady as a screener to identify students “at risk,” not as a diagnostic assessment. I think this defense wears thin when schools begin to use iReady assessment data as a measure of growth on their School Improvement Plans. I think this defense wears thin when schools print out the reports and use them to sort and label children for intervention in data dialogue meetings.
Here’s where I return to my earlier point about the iReady universal screener containing inaccurate and misleading questions. I was given access to an unused student account at the beginning of the year to “see what the iReady test is like.” In my first ten minutes of clicking around, I came across a myriad of troubling questions that made me seriously question whether the makers of this assessment have any business writing a math test, let alone making instructional recommendations. Here’s one example. I’ve changed the context (it wasn’t originally cats and dogs) and numbers (it wasn’t originally 7 and 11), but otherwise the question and answer choices are identical.
Can you figure out which equation is the correct answer? I can’t because the the first three equations are all correct! Strong math instruction encourages students to understand the inverse relationship between addition and subtraction and solve problems in flexible ways that might involve thinking about 7+4=11, 11-7=4 or 11-4=7 to solve this problem. And perhaps most importantly, strong math instruction encourages students to develop a deep understanding of the equal sign as a symbol that describes a relationship between the two sides of the equation, not a symbol that means “here comes the answer!”
But as a teacher whose students take the iReady test, you’ll never see this question. You’ll never have the opportunity to decide if the test or the question are worthy of using to assess student thinking.
The good news is that we can do better. Fairfax County Public Schools, you can do better! We can all do better. We can make it our top priority to assess in ways that allow us to collect data on student thinking and strategies. We can only do that by investing in teachers who learn to listen to students’ thinking about math, analyze student work and choose assessments that allow us to see how students engage with the math. This is what helps us choose next steps for instruction.
When I started working for Fairfax County Public Schools twelve years ago I knew very little about math or how children learn math. But I was lucky to end up in a district that invests in teachers. I had amazing math coaches (who inspired me to become a math coach!) and support from the Title I office, I took courses in Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) and Developing Mathematical Ideas (DMI), learned how to use the Investigations curriculum well, and wrote a book about nurturing young mathematicians through small group instruction. I say this to point out that tremendous resources were poured into me (and many others!) as a classroom teacher and a coach to help me learn to listen to students and teach and assess responsively.
The best “screener” is a knowledgeable teacher and our first question of any potential assessment should be, “Does it provide a window into student thinking or is student thinking hidden behind scale scores and graphs?”
So, Fairfax County and all the other districts directing millions and millions of dollars towards iReady, I know we can do better. We have to.
*Note: It’s important for me to acknowledge that writing publicly about iReady carries much less risk for me than my colleagues. I am about to finish my last day of work for FCPS after serving as a classroom teacher and math coach for twelve years in the district. Many of the colleagues I’ve spoken to about iReady feel similarly to me, but feel powerless, or even scared, to speak out against it in a public way. Others who have spoken out feel their voices have gone unheard.