Newswise — Traditional phonological awareness assessments, basic tests that are widely used to gauge children's prereading skills, have serious flaws, according to a Ball State University study.

Testing students' phonological awareness is a requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and the pressure to produce results is driving teachers to use the existing tests because so much federal funding is at stake, says Jerrell Cassady, educational psychology professor.

"The way the tests are delivered, in many cases, is wrong," he said. "Using computer-supported testing would correct those flaws."

The two critical problems with existing tests are inconsistent delivery and the fact that the tests aren't specific enough, Cassady adds. Accent and pace in which the tests are administered can vary substantially between teachers, for example, in New York and Dallas.

Trying to test broad areas of skills rather than particular abilities is the second problem. Using a more specific assessment tool would remedy this problem, says Lawrence Smith, elementary education professor and one of the study's coauthors.

"Using computers with prerecorded voices, rather than computer-simulated voices, would give teachers an excellent tool to hone in on particular skills and to correctly assess students' abilities without putting the schools' NCLB funding in jeopardy," he said. "By making the tests standardized, regional accents will be removed, pauses between sounds would be constant and overall consistency would be vastly improved."

Smith, Cassady and Linda Huber, elementary education professor and study coauthor, are not advocating that computers replace teachers. Their study also indicated that such testing augments existing reading programs.

"Other research on early literacy has clearly demonstrated that phonological awareness is one of the best indicators of students' future reading performance," Smith said. "Standardized computer tests will complement teachers' efforts to better gauge those skills."

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