Understanding the Art and Science of STEP: Frequently Asked Questions

An Examination of Research and Practice Related to the STEP Literacy Assessment

Understanding the Art and Science of STEP: An Examination of Research and Practice Related to the STEP Literacy Assessment

Frequently Asked Questions

This document has been created for our partners in response to commonly asked questions we receive regarding STEP. This FAQ specifically focuses on the early stages of formative, developmental literacy assessment; instructional practices closely tied to decoding; and how meaningful teacher preparation, such as that provided by STEP, supports teachers in learning how to interpret data to inform instruction.

What is STEP’s Foundational Research?

STEP and its framework were developed by renowned education researchers, David Kerbow, PhD, Anthony Bryk, EdD, and several other applied researchers who then worked at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium). Kerbow and Bryk organized STEP around a map of how students grow as readers.

STEP is grounded in several theoretical frameworks, including pragmatism, constructivism, social constructivism, and cognition. These frameworks are often observed in STEP partner schools as staff learn to interpret and respond to formative assessment data. This process reveals insights into students’ development of concepts and their shaping by knowledgeable others as guided by data-driven, research-based practices.1

Pragmatism is a branch of linguistics focused on conversational implicature, a process in which the speaker implies and a listener infers. Connections to pragmatism can be seen in the design of the comprehension conversation, use of prompting language and analysis of expressive and receptive comprehension.

Constructivist theory focuses on the idea that meaning is individually constructed by each learner based on their experiences. 

Social constructivism builds off of the constructivist theory by focusing further on the role of social interaction in the context of meaning making. This theory upholds the belief that a learner constructs meaning as a result of the social interactions within a group. Connections to the assessment can be seen in the assumption that the development of reading skills and conceptual knowledge best occur as a result of small group instruction, social interaction, and exchange of ideas among learners.   

Cognitive theory focuses on the belief that all readers progress through a series of distinct skills and milestones. This theory can be seen in the developmental trajectory of skills mapped onto the progression of STEP levels in the assessment.

The seminal research by Bear, Chall, Clay, Frith, and Fountas & Pinnell share a common view of reading as a complex process in which children learn to combine and rely on multiple sources of information, including phonemic awareness, understanding of the alphabetic principle, word recognition, decoding, fluency, and comprehension.2 Each theory describes the skills and strategies that readers demonstrate at each of the developmental stages they pass through as they learn to read.

How is the STEP Assessment Organized?

STEP offers a continuum of component datasets that are closely aligned with scientifically established milestones in reading development, and follow students’ progress from Emergent to Self-Extending readers.

These components are organized into an incremental, increasingly rigorous, sequenced set of skills and concepts. This organization helps teachers understand the developmental status of individual readers and the class as a whole at any point in time across the academic year. The following are all of the components represented across various STEP levels, each of which research has shown is an essential building block of the reading process:

  • Concepts about Print
  • Letter Identification
  • Letter-Sound Correspondence
  • Phonological Awareness: onset-rime, matching first-sounds, & segmentation
  • Developmental Spelling
  • Reading Rate and Accuracy
  • Comprehension (oral/silent and written)
  • Overall Fluency

Why Does the STEP Assessment Use Leveled Texts?

Central to the design of the STEP Assessment is a set of leveled texts that increase in difficulty across 13 distinct “steps” or levels. Each STEP, in conjunction with the associated student texts, includes assessment tasks that allow for a deeper understanding of student performance and progress toward mastery of skills specific to that level.

  • Listening to students read aloud from a leveled text provides direct information for understanding their reading skills and strategies, diagnosing strengths and weaknesses, and evaluating progress.3
  • Student texts aligned to key developmental milestones are used during assessment and help teachers identify and understand students’ approaches to problem-solving unknown words (i.e., decoding) and making meaning of the text (i.e., comprehension).
  • Psychometricians from the UChicago Consortium indicate that text-level reading associated with STEP shows an overall sub-scale reliability of 0.82 which is statistically significant.

Has the STEP Assessment Been Validated?

STEP was originally validated over 15 years ago by the UChicago Consortium. Initial analysis of the 2018 STEP Revalidation Study, as analyzed by UChicago Consortium psychometricians, indicates continued support for the reliability and validity of the assessment as well as use of STEP’s leveled texts.

The UChicago Consortium has distinguished itself as a unique organization, conducting research of high technical quality that is used broadly by the school reform community. They are viewed as an invaluable resource for education institutions and policymakers, specifically Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the third largest district in the nation.

To maintain intellectual independence while carrying out research in collaboration with partners, the UChicago Consortium relies on internal and external oversight and transparency of results.

How Does STEP Inform Instruction?

STEP can increase a teacher’s capacity for data-driven, differentiated instructional planning by providing the reliable and comprehensive insight needed to tailor instruction to meet the unique needs of their students. However, access to data is only one piece of the equation. STEP firmly believes in the interrelationship between instruction and assessment. Therefore, when working with STEP through professional learning and leadership training, we support educators in modifying existing instructional frameworks or creating new systems and approaches to meet the needs of all learners. Below are just a few of the instructional practices STEP encourages educators to follow.

  • The STEP Literacy Team recommends literacy instruction that favors direct instruction, explicit modeling, guided practice, and independent application of skills.
  • Literacy instructional design should integrate content instruction (i.e., science and social studies), along with a comprehensive approach to instruction in vocabulary and explicit phonemic awareness and phonics instruction.
  • Small group reading instruction must be structured around a specific and explicit focus, as well as driven by data whether heterogeneous or homogeneous.
  • Practitioners should link small group reading to an instructional skill set or concept that the student has not yet mastered. Until that group of learners masters the intended instructional skill, it merits additional practice and/or reteaching so that students may continue their path toward independence in reading.4
  • Small group reading instruction ensures that students learn to comprehend written texts5 while also learning to use phonics skills to take words apart while reading for meaning.6 The use of a systematic phonics program is an essential aspect of instruction in the elementary grades.
  • Teachers should design instruction to teach comprehension and vocabulary while also providing explicit instruction in reading fluency.7

You can read more about STEP’s recommended instructional practices here.

Which Text Types Are Recommended for Reading Instruction?

Decodable texts, predictable texts, controlled vocabulary, easy readers, multiple criteria, and authentic literature are all examples of essential instructional materials.

The key is for teachers to intentionally select texts that match the ever-evolving needs of their students. A text used for small group skill instruction should align with the available data to support a particular skill set’s advancement. Teachers should aim to use texts that are not only at the appropriate level based on data but also grounded in content aligned to areas of focus in the classroom.

Researchers agree that early readers need access and exposure to a variety of texts (fiction, nonfiction, leveled texts, high/low texts). At STEP, we encourage this practice so that students can become familiar with the varied text types and structures they will encounter inside and outside of the classroom, thus supporting their ability to improve comprehension across diverse content.

What Should Be the Role of Decodable Texts?

Effective use of decodable texts can support emergent readers in developing basic decoding strategies. Researchers agree that decodable texts help students when they are first learning to sound out words. However, decodable texts are not beneficial after students are proficient in this skill.8

Decodables that are meaningful and lessons that are structured to allow for practice and discussion will support students not only in their phonics development but also reinforce the concept that to read is to make meaning. When choosing decodable texts, practitioners should look for meaningful content (stories that make sense) and books with consistent patterns.

You can read more about decodable texts here.

Do I have to use the 3-Cueing System to use STEP?

Analyzing reading records through the three-cueing lens is not a requirement to partner with STEP.

Coding reading records does not impact a student’s performance on a STEP assessment, and we acknowledge a running record is but one tool in a roster of many STEP Assessment data points that work in tandem to inform instructional planning. The STEP Assessment remains robust in available data even if used without coding informed by the reading record.

To support our partners who do not find this process valuable, STEP will enable schools to uniformly choose whether or not to electronically code reading records in steptool.org beginning in the fall of 2021. Currently, via Online Progress Monitoring, teachers can already choose to code or omit analysis of reading records.

Why Might One Use the Three-Cueing System?

If applied correctly, analysis using the three-cueing system empowers teachers to prepare for targeted reading instruction. STEP has seen how the three-cueing schematic helps teachers understand the interplaying complexities among lexical, semantic, and syntactic variables encountered by readers. We also acknowledge that sometimes there can be a disconnect between how three-cueing is meant to inform and how some practitioners apply it to instruction.

STEP often supports teachers in analyzing and employing reading records. A properly analyzed reading record can help teachers better understand the strategies a student is or is not employing while reading. Teachers can then use that analysis to identify and prioritize the most relevant decoding strategies (word-solving and/or phonics skills) needed during whole and small-group classroom instruction. The analysis and identification of trends across reading records help teachers use data to fine-tune the order in which to teach these strategies.

Why Is STEP Professional Learning Encouraged?

STEP Professional Learning supports, develops, and guides teachers in cultivating foundational literacy practices that will empower them to implement the assessment and change their practices according to student needs.

Only 50 percent of early-career teachers reported feeling prepared to differentiate instruction in the classroom. In 2020, the National Council on Teacher Quality shared their findings on graduate and undergraduate teacher preparation program effectiveness. They found that only 50 percent of programs cover most of the five components that research shows significantly impact student achievement in literacy. These components are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, all of which are core principles of the STEP Assessment.

STEP aims to remedy this gap in teacher preparation. STEP Professional Learning is designed to not only support the implementation of the formative assessment but also support educators in their continued learning and refining of practice. A substantial research base supports the idea that teacher effectiveness improves in initial years with experience and support—like that of STEP Professional Learning.

The combination of STEP data and comprehensive professional learning work in tandem to build staff capacity for providing instruction that promotes strong reading outcomes. It leads to a school-wide, systematic, and consistent approach to instruction, scoring, and collaborative planning practices.

1  Duke & Pearson, 2002; Fosnot, 1996; Jonassen, 1991; Kintsch, 2004; Piaget, 1959; Rosenblatt, 1978; Vygotsky, 1987
2  Bear, 1991; Chall, 1983; Clay, 1991; Frith, 1985; Fountas & Pinnell, 1996
3  Johnson et al., 1987
4  Fisher & Frey, 2007
5  Pearson & Fielding, 1991; Pressley, 1998
6  Pressley, 1998; Snow et al., 1998
7  NICHD, 2001; Pinnell et al., 1995
8  Mesmer, 1999