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Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 21, Number 1, September 2008 

What is DART?

By Sheridan Angerelli, Susan Croll, Donna DeCastro, and Noralea Pilgrim

How perplexed we were to read the front page of the October 2007 issue of Teacher newsmagazine. Not only had a teacher been disciplined for refusing to administer the District Assessment of Reading Team (DART) assessment to her Grade 3 students, but the DART was characterized as a standardized test. We asked ourselves if this could be the same DART that many of us in Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows use and have been using for the past three years. Our experiences with DART are quite different than Kathryn Sihota’s and we wish to explain why.

First, it is useful to know the history of the DART and why it was designed. Our understanding tells us that the DART was in part created to mitigate against standardized testing that was (and is) coming down the pipe. A well-renowned BCTF member, along with a group of BC teachers, are the authors of DART. They knew that teachers were being bombarded with all kinds of assessments and tests and set out to create a reading assessment that BC teachers could easily and handily use. That’s why the Performance Standards for Reading are used in conjunction with the DART; teachers are familiar with them and already use them in their teaching practices. There are DART texts, all non-fiction, for Grades 3–7. Students read and respond to two different DART texts twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring.

The DART assesses for a variety of reading processes and skills that we believe strong and capable readers must develop in order for reading to be a meaningful and enjoyable experience. Current research supports this belief. These skills and processes include:

  • making personal connections while reading
  • making inferences while reading
  • distinguishing between main ideas and supporting details
  • using a repertoire of strategies to read unfamiliar words
  • using a repertoire of strategies to read challenging text.

There are two chief components to the DART. Prior to the students reading the text independently, the teacher brainstorms with the class, the text’s topic to build background knowledge. As well, the teacher reads all the questions with the student before to help the students establish a purpose for reading. Then the students read the text to themselves and answer questions. Each question requires the students to answer in a different format, thereby encouraging students to think in different ways about the text. For example, students are asked to categorize facts or ideas using webs or charts, or to draw and label a sketch that builds upon information from the text. In other words, the DART does not rely on the traditional “question/answer” format in order for students to show what they know and understand when reading.

Secondly, the students read aloud a portion of the text to the teacher and then answer questions orally. This oral component not only gives the teacher a snapshot of the child’s oral reading, but also gives the student an opportunity to respond verbally—a benefit for many children especially those who find writing difficult.

The DART is intended as the kind of assessment that, once completed, is used by the teacher to help her students learn and grow. It helps us determine, not only our students’ strengths, but what they need to learn to become strong thinkers and readers. To use the lingo, it is primarily an assessment “for” learning, but, of course, like any useful assessment, can (and in our minds, should) be used as an assessment “of” learning. It helps school staffs decide which resources to purchase (if monies are available) and how to set reading goals for students in general. We also give the results of the Grades 3 and 6 spring DART to the district. Students, not teachers, are identified. These results aid in determining how to allocate resources and funds for student learning in literacy.

Furthermore, it is critical to remember that the DART is one assessment, not the “be all and end all.” An evaluation cannot be made on one piece of work. Evaluations can only be made once a pattern is present. The DART is one piece of many classroom-based assessments that help give us a clear picture of our students’ strengths and challenges in reading.

Administering the DART: The “right” conditions

  • In our experience, it is the classroom teacher who decides who in their class participates in DART and when the DART takes place. For example, many teachers wait until October or November to do the Grade 3 DART because their students are just learning about the Grade 3 world. It is true, many of them aren’t used to reading non-fiction texts. This does not mean they can’t or shouldn’t, but that they may need extra time, support, and teaching to get there.
  • The DART isn’t given cold. It is not presented as a test. The tasks presented in the DART are very much like the tasks children in language-arts and literacy-rich classrooms do everyday.
  • Teachers are also the ones who decide which students, and how students take part in DART. For example, a student who is struggling with reading, may be given an alternate reading assessment, have the text read aloud to them, or have responses scribed for them..
  • Support is available for classroom teachers. Teachers in our district have had many opportuni­ties to attend sessions to continue learning about the reading process, and about DART, either with Faye Brownlie, or one of the district facilitators. As well, teachers are not expected to either administer or interpret the DART on their own. A literacy teacher at each school may work with both the teachers and the students throughout the whole process. Based on the strengths and needs of the class, the classroom and literacy teachers work together to plan lessons and activities to encourage reading growth in stu­dents. In addition, there is support available from district facilitators.

Lastly, the DART is an assessment that is congruent with our values regarding what reading is. The DART aims to assess thoughtful and deep reading, asking students to represent their thinking and reading in a variety of ways. We want our students to be these kind of readers.

Sheridan Angerelli, Susan Croll, Donna DeCastro, and Noralea Pilgrim are Maple Ridge teachers.