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An Open Letter to iReady, made by @CurriculumAssoc

This is a long one, because I have a LOT to say about iReady, the learning program produced by Curriculum Associates. I used the iReady system as an essential daily part of my “Mom-School” homeschooling distance learning routine (iReady was provided by my local school district) during the 13 weeks of Sheltering-in-Place. It has some AMAZING capabilities and features. It also has some aspects that are appallingly awful. I’m going to break this open letter into three parts:

  1. Good things about iReady
  2. Horrid things about the iReady Assessment
  3. Essential features NEEDED to make iReady a functional classroom companion

Good Things About iReady

1. First, let me say that my 1st grader found the animated characters Yoop and Plury to be extremely engaging and funny. These fun interludes and interesting characters made her enjoy using the iReady program. The 4th grader curriculum does not have the silly Yoop and Plury characters (they seem geared just toward younger grades), but the animated characters engaged in the higher 4th grade level were interesting, dynamic, and more age appropriate. The creativity in content is high quality and truly engaging while being extremely educational (word blend practice with the “roast-a-nater” marshmallow roasting animation was another favorite of my daughter’s).

2. Real instruction! After having sat side-by-side with my 1st grader as she completed over 103 Reading modules and over 95 Math modules in the iReady system, I think that what sets it apart from other digital tools is that it provides what feels like true instruction – it introduces a new concept, walks through intro steps, guides through basic understanding, and if you get some of the instruction questions incorrect it provides additional breaking-down-the-concept instructional content with good logical audio, text, and animation that illustrates the concept and engages the student. The instruction flexes based on how your answers are going – it keeps moving you forward if you are understanding, and it pauses and re-teaches in a simpler way if you are not. My 4th grader also had good instructional content as well in her modules – with an animated teacher talking through new concepts, while different texts or math concepts were highlighted, illustrating different points, and helping to teach new concepts and material to students.

Horrid Things About the iReady Assessment

First I will say that I believe the Assessment was made by different people than the amazing people who make the well-planned user-friendly learning modules which have an optimized and user-friendly interface. The Assessment instead is clunky, has a bit of a different user interface, and even the vernacular on some of the questions is frustratingly inconsistent with the terminology used in the modules of the same topic with which the student would have been familiar (example: in the learning module it uses the math term “make a ten” but the Assessment used an obtuse different term “regroup” for that same concept).

1. The regular iReady learning modules are full of positive reinforcement and encouragement – literally after each problem there is a positive sound, and the little characters say things like “good job”. In the Assessment, ALL per-question feedback is removed and feels missing to a kid who is very used to the regular iReady modules. My daughter initially assumed she was getting every question wrong (which made her scream and run away) because there was zero positive reinforcement between problems.

2. The questions are unreasonably hard (in fact, it is “officially designed” to try to ask such hard questions that children should get at least 50% of the answers WRONG!). For example, it asked my 1st grader to know what the Latin root for “tract” in tractor means, which, even for kids who use their best logic would require suburban kids to have enough agricultural knowledge to know that when plowing, a tractor pulls a plowing implement attached behind the tractor across the field, which most kids wouldn’t know, because the correct answer for that Latin root of “tract” is “pull”. Also, asking kids what the suffix “ition” means in “composition” – As a 1st grader, my daughter hasn’t even covered pronunciation for “tion” words, let alone learned it’s suffix meaning in this nuanced context. Plus reading words like “poetical” and “realization” and “apprehension” as standalone words without any surrounding context, as a 1st grader, is too difficult. Analyzing and interpreting poetry written with words like “oft” and “weary” with complex themes about ‘hope’ and ‘feeling alone’ where the student is asked to consider the theatrical nuances of the poetry-reading audio? I mean… Wow. Maybe I am just really out of touch with 1st grade level content, but many of the questions feel dramatically too hard. For the most challenging questions on poetry analysis, another harder aspect is that they purposefully include multiple good answer options. They then ask you to pick the ‘best’ answer, but multiple answers are correct! While I know which one I would suspect is the best answer, even as a college graduate adult, I couldn’t feel confident in choosing the correct answer. 

For all of the younger grades in particular, K-3, I think that having kids take a long complex assessment where they HAVE to feel lost and confused and get 50% of it wrong is unreasonable, ill-advised, and harmful to the child’s confidence. I firmly believe that the assessment should be re-designed to instead aim for kids to only get a maximum of 15% of the questions wrong. It’s important to continue to challenge and assess the right level, but the assessment atmosphere is toxic when a full half of the assessment is impossible for the child. I’ve heard from parent after parent about young kids who just gave up, guessed wildly and were improperly placed level-wise, and hated the whole program after their miserable assessment experience.

3. In the iReady modules, it has a friendly “listen” button to push, where it will help read some of the content out loud to the student. This is essential to help with reading fatigue for younger students just learning to read. For example, it might read the question to you, then you have to read a sentence yourself, and then it helps read the answer options to you. Or you have to read a composition paragraph yourself, but then it helps you read the answer options. Anyway, in all the regular iReady modules, among the question/content/answers it offers reading support for at least one or two of the parts of the problem. In the assessment, my daughter was faced with a huge section where all the question/content/answers must all solely be read by the student, which is too much for a little 1st grader to slog through, especially after the iReady modules have trained her to rely on the “read it to me” listening buttons for help with parts of every practice module question. An example question has content that is six paragraphs long, the question itself is two sentences, and each answer option is also a whole sentence to read! So understanding just this one question requires solo reading similar to the length of an entire “Frog and Toad” reader book chapter. Some independent reading is great, and it shouldn’t all have the “listen” button, but the first and only place the student is introduced to having to suddenly read everything by themselves alone shouldn’t be on the Assessment. More self-reading should be introduced in the regular modules first! Also, the language and vocabulary in the way many of the questions are phrased makes it an insurmountable hurdle to understand what the question is asking for an early reader, even if they read the long composition very successfully, a situation my daughter ran into several times where she read and understood the passage successfully but the terminology in the question sentence was too tricky for her to read independently, so she was unable to do more than guess, simply because the question wording was very obtuse.

4. The Assessment progress bar is hidden by default, and looks overwhelmingly long when checked (which my daughter does obsessively after each problem). In the regular modules, after each question the student sees the visible progress bar make tangible progress and it provides important positive reinforcement. Long regular module sections are broken up into multiple parts (such as intro, practice 1, practice 2, practice 3, quiz) and each section has its own progress bar, so the student feels good. The Assessment is designed with the progress bar as one giant bar that only moves a minuscule 1% per question. They could have easily changed this to make the assessment artificially broken into multiple “sections” a, b, c, and d or whatever, and then the moving progress bar could make the student feel like they are making real progress through the current assessment section.

Essential Features NEEDED to Make iReady a Functional Classroom Companion

1. Enable Teachers to Assign Specific iReady Modules to Students – Because the Assessment is so messed up, it can place kids at the wrong level, especially for kids who struggle with ADHD or who are IEP students who struggle with frustration or sustained focus (which the 50%-wrong-answers Assessment is sure to trigger anger and misery in those type of students). Or, despite what the iReady assessment is thinking, teachers need to be able to have students work on the actual subject being studied in class. For example, if the class is learning 2-digit subtraction concepts, the teacher needs to be able to assign the 2-digit subtraction concept modules to the student in iReady so that THOSE correct subject matter modules show up for the student to complete. The differentiated learning that iReady is so great at trying to do (providing added break-it-down instruction when needed) can occur if kids are struggling with the assigned modules, but teachers MUST be able to assign specific subject matter in order for the iReady modules to connect to the grade level standards that the class is learning in a particular week. If the class is doing a unit on Units of Measure and Geometric Shapes, then the teacher needs to be able to assign their students modules related to those exact specific topics.

2. More control of features for special needs students. For example, the “you got it wrong” ding noise in iReady became a harmful trigger for my child. If there was a way to mute just that one “you got it wrong” ding sound (while keeping the positive reinforcement on correct answers), which could be a setting that special needs student families could utilize, it would genuinely make the system more accessible and functional for a broader range of students with unique needs.

3. Greater control to push kids ahead in the curriculum. My daughter got literally every single question 100% perfect and every quiz at 100% on math module after math module, and yet it still made her do what felt like ten repetitive modules on the exact same 2-digit-additon-where-you-group-a-new-ten math concept. While doing a little repetition is fine for practice and re-enforcement, teachers (and ideally parents too) should be able to skip students forward a bit through some of the over-repetitive modules.

4. Enable teachers to do student-level-placement manually so their students can skip the Assessment. The Assessment is so bad and discouraging for kids. For teachers who know where their students are in their learning, they should be able to manually place students so that the students can bypass the awful Assessment entirely and just do the learning modules only.

In Conclusion

iReady was an absolute life-saver when I had to switch to unexpectedly “mom-schooling” my kids during the 13 weeks of school closure and minimal distance learning provided by their school district. It has incredible potential. It just needs a few key features added, and some fixes to the assessment in order to turn a good tool into an incredible fully-school-usable resource.