1Focused Anecdotal Records Assessment (ara): a tool for standards-based, authentic assessment

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1Focused Anecdotal Records Assessment (ARA):

a tool for standards-based, authentic assessment

Paul Boyd-Batstone, Ph.D.

A tension exists between macro and micro levels of assessment according to Valencia & Wixson (2000); yet there is common ground. In the current educational environment, standards-based measures dominate assessment (Johnston & Rogers, 2002). And yet, over the past two decades, qualitative measures for assessment purposes, and observational records in particular, have expanded considerably (Bird, 1986; Fishman & McCarthy, 2000). On a macro level, content standards arguably supply systematic criteria for quantitative measures to report trends and establish policy. On the micro level, qualitative measures such as rubrics, student profiles, and anecdotal records provide measures that fill in the gaps to give teachers immediate information to plan for instruction. The purpose of this article is describe a technique for anecdotal records assessment that utilizes the lens of content standards for an initial focus. As a classroom teacher and as a teacher educator, I sought to develop a “teacher friendly,” standards-based way to address recording, managing and using anecdotal records for authentic assessment purposes. I call the system “focused anecdotal records assessment (ARA).” Hopefully, teachers can add this tool to their qualitative assessment tool boxes to develop common ground for authentic assessment in a standards-based enviroment.

Why Anecdotal Records Assessment?

Observational notes as a technique for recording a child’s natural literacy experiences emerged from qualitative research (Lofland, 1971; Guba & Lincoln, 1982; Patton, 1990; Emerson, Fretz & Shaw, 1995). Applying observational techniques for classroom-based, ongoing assessment has been called a variety of names such as alternative, informal, or authentic assessment (Cole, Ryan & Kick, 1995; Reutzel & Cooter, 2004; Tierney, 1999). I prefer the term authentic assessment , as opposed to alternative assessment, because it is not defined by a juxtaposition to standardized assessment. Authentic assessment is defined by the active role the teacher plays in classroom-based assessment of actual literacy experiences. Taking observational notes allows the teacher to record a wide range of authentic experiences and even unintended outcomes of literacy development. Observational notes are used to record objective and/or subjective information. Observational notes are also used to record affective information such as levels of engagement, curiosity, and motivational factors (Wigfield, 1997; Baker, Dreher, & Guthrie, 2000). With focused ARA, content standards initially frame the field of vision to guide observation; however it is not designed to preclude the observation and recording of a full range of experiences related to reading and the language arts.

Being a teacher calls for skilled techniques in observing children, recording, and managing authentic assessment data. Recording observational data “explicitly depends on the human expert”(Johnston & Rogers, 2002, p.381), the “kid watcher” (Goodman, 1978), the “sensitive observer” (Clay 1993). In other words, the one closest to the classroom experience is in a unique position to see and communicate a reliable and valid, instructional perspective of the child. Rhodes & Nathenson-Mejia, (1992) identified anecdotal records as “a powerful tool” for literacy assessment. Miller-Power (1996) argued that systematic, daily recording of children’s actions was essential to generating focused, instructional planning. Anecdotal records in particular have been used as one of multiple assessment tools in authentic literacy assessment (Valencia, S., Au, K. H., Scheu, J.A., Kawakami, A. J., & Herman P. A., 1990; Pils, L., 1991). Anecdotal records assessment is an essential component in the development and interpretation of student portfolios (Klenowski, Val, 2002; Valencia, S.,1998). Additionally, Rollins-Hurely, S. & Villamil-Tinajero, J. (2001) applied the use of observational records to assessing the language proficiency of English learners.

A fundamental purpose of assessment is to communicate what the child knows and is able to do. Teacher generated anecdotal records provide an “insiders” perspective of the child’s educational experience (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1990; Baumann & Duffy-Hester, 2002). This “insiders” perspective is vital to communication with the child and the child’s family about academic progress. Anecdotal records also facilitate “assessment conversations” (Johnston, 2003) as educational professionals describe their observations of student learning in terms of strengths and needs, and consider ways to develop appropriate strategies to build on strengths and address academic needs. The more focused the observational records, the more helpful the records can be in making decisions about instructional approaches on a day to day basis.

Focused ARA is a collection of techniques

Focused Anecdotal Records Assessment is a collection of techniques. Focused ARA employs content standards to initially focus observations. It uses several techniques for recording standards-based notes, and a simple format for managing multiple records. Finally, it supplies a way to analyze records and a place to address instructional recommendations. To more fully answer the question of what is focused ARA, I will discuss each component of the process of standards-based anecdotal records assessment in a problem/solution format. The five components to be addressed are as follows: 1) Observing children in instructional settings; 2) Maintaining a standards-based focus; 3) Recording anecdotal records; 4) Managing anecdotal records; 5) Using anecdotal records for assessment.

Observing children in instructional settings. When attempting to record observations of children, two problems emerged, limited time and how to compose quality records. The two-fold challenge of limited time and how to compose quality records is illustrated by the following example: On a weekly basis, I observe teachers working with groups of students. They may be leading a discussion of a work of children’s literature. They are excited by the adrenaline rush teachers get when students authentically respond to reading. The students are making personal connections to the story, they are making insightful comments and asking probing questions. The lesson comes to a close just as the recess bell rings. The class files out the door to play. The student teacher desperately needs a bathroom break. Now what?

Observations must be recorded before the moment is lost to short term memory. There is no time. The teacher draws a blank and is confronted with a host of perplexing questions: What should I write? How do I start? How did what I saw match up with content standards? What do I do with the information? How can I record information that will be readily accessible in the future? If I write one note about the students, how can I avoid rewriting the notes in each of their files? In the words of A.A. Milne’s (1956) Winnie the Pooh, “ Bother!” The observational data is at risk of being lost.

Observing children requires planning and preparation. In order to address the time constraints of the classroom, select which students to observe ahead of time. Avoid attempting to observe everybody-all-at-once. I recommend dividing the students in to four groups of 5-7 in each group. Each day of the week observe a different group (Monday-Thursday). On Fridays, observe the students that were absent or that required further observation. In other words, the teacher only focuses on a handful of students to observe each day. This simple organizational technique can keep the teacher from drowning in anecdotal record taking.

Another technique that addresses time constraints is the use of computer address labels for writing the records (Rhodes & Nathenson-Mejia, 1992). I recommend 1"X3" adhesive labels because the size fits a form displayed below. Prior to observing, write the current date and the student’s initials on each label .

All that the teacher carries, then, is 5-7 dated and initialed, blank labels. I also recommend carrying a few extra labels just in case they become necessary to write further observations. Selecting students and preparing the labels for recording observations will save valuable time; but having tools in place is only part of the solution. Prior to observation, one needs to establish a focus.

Reality is complex. When confronted with the myriad of situations that take place during instruction, it is easy for the teacher to become distracted and neglect to observe actions directly related to the subject of instruction. Think of how experienced photographers approach taking pictures. They are experts at drawing the eye to a subject. Prior to entering the studio, professional photographers sketch a series of poses that will establish a dominant focus for the pictures. In contrast, inexperienced photographers often take pictures without realizing that the foreground or background images create significant distractions. In much the same way with anecdotal record taking, teachers require a dominant focus to avoid being distracted by disruptive or unusual behaviors, personality differences, and so forth. This is not to exclude important information about a student that a teacher should note. There already exists a number of tools for inventory and survey of developmental levels, interests, unique qualities and affective aspects of the reading process (for a comprehensive listing see Reutzel & Cooter, 2004). But, in order to train the eye for observing instructional experiences related to content standards, a dominant focus must be established. What establishes a dominant focus for observation to select an appropriate content standard prior to instruction. Teachers already do this with lesson planning; therefore, it follows to use the selected content standard for observational purposes. Record the selected standard on the Content Standard Key shown below.

Establishing a content standard focus has multiple advantages. First of all, it directs the attention of the teacher to persistently observe what students know and do with regard to specific instructional content. Consequently, it enables the teacher to resist being distracted in a given moment of instruction. Secondly, the verbs in well written content standards facilitate composing observational data.

The verb initiates the focus for observation. The field of vision for observation is set by the verbs found in each standard. Are the students, for example, identifying vocabulary or matching words to pictures? Are they asking clarifying questions? Or are they retelling the story? Borrowing the key verbs from the content standard saves time with on-the-spot composing of anecdotal records. The teacher is not wasting time trying to think of what to record because prior to instruction the content standard was selected and the key verbs are noted. The following verbs were extracted from the California Reading/Language Arts Framework Content Standards (1999) and organized according to various facets of reading/language arts (this is not an exhaustive list):

Meaningful Verbs for Writing Anecdotal Records






Uses (strategies) Organizes

Generates Classifies

Compares Contrasts




Connects (ideas)



















Follows directions


Points out, to



Prints (legibly)













Follows words


Uses references





Shares (information)














The focus, initially established by the content standards, guides observation for assessment. This is not to advocate a rigid and narrow field of vision. Experienced teachers observe and record multiple features of student performance at a glance. However, using a selected content standard as a point of reference ensures that an instructional focus is maintained during an observation period.

Following instruction, write specific anecdotal records on adhesive address labels that have been dated for reference. Once records are taken, the adhesive address labels are peeled off and then pasted to a specially designed form– one per child. Maintaining a “Key” with a listing of the selected standards is highly recommended. The standards key provides a place to record and collect selected standards for future analysis of the anecdotal records.
Anecdotal Records Standards Key

























Writing quality anecdotal records. Writing quality anecdotal records is facilitated by keeping in mind the following considerations: Write observable data, use significant abbreviations, write records in past tense, support records with examples as evidence, don’t use the C-word-- “can’t,” and avoid redundancy.

In order to insure writing observable records, there are several questions which clarify the word choice for observable records. First, close your eyes and ask yourself, “Does the wording tell me what the student is doing?” “Do I see the child matching words to pictures?” That is an observable action. Conversely, a favorite phrase from the lexicon of expressions commonly used by educators is “on task.” If you close your eyes and try to imagine what “on task” looks like, you draw a blank.

Another set of questions deals with quantitative data. Ask, “How many?” and “How much?” What you can count can be observed. How many words were spelled correctly? How many times did the student self-correct? How much time did the student read independently? Conversely, avoid using phrases that imply an imbedded interpretation such as “a lot,” “a few,” “many times.”

Some words are very tricky and yet are essential to instruction such as “know,” “understood.” The reality is that one cannot directly observe the inner process of acquiring knowledge or understanding. These words are conclusions drawn from a composite of a student’s demonstration of a skill or expression of summarizing or synthesizing concepts. We realize that a student has gained understanding by observing related actions. Children demonstrate their knowledge or understanding by responding to questions or performing a task. Note the difference in these kinds of records:

Observable: “Wrote 3 sentences,” “read for 5 minutes,” “misspell 6 words,” “defined vocabulary,” or “answer 2 comprehension questions.”

Not observable: “Wrote a few sentences,” “read a lot,” “misspelled words many times,” “knows vocabulary,” or “understood the story.”

The following are some helpful abbreviations to speed the writing of records:






ID main idea



Misspelled “tried” 3Xs


to or in relation to

Matched picture ----> words

(see next example)



Retold story —> T



Read to 4 Ss for 5 minutes


read alone

RA -----> 2 minutes


read with teacher

RT -----> 2 paragraphs


read with another student

RS entire book



Wrote “unitid” SC-----> “united”


wrote alone

WA 3 sentences


wrote with teacher

WT 4 paragraphs


wrote with another student

WS 7 sentences



def 6 terms correctly


“delta” means change

ª initial focus in writing

N or i (null sign)

Did not observe

i clarifying questions

Use past tense. Remember that the moment after an event takes place, it moves into the past. Knowing to write records in past tense streamlines the composing process. There is less need to consider how to conjugate verbs. Maintaining past tense makes for consistent and more accurate records.

Include an example of what the student did. Anytime the observer can cite a specific example, the record will more accurately generate a clear recommendation for instruction. For example, “WA picture 3 different ways– pitur, pictr, piture” Examining the record triggers a recommendation for r-controlled word lessons.

Avoid the “C-word.” There is a temptation to use the word “can’t” when attempting to write a record observations about what the student did not do. It is much more accurate to simply state that the student did not do a particular task, than to infer that the student is unable to perform the task by writing “can’t.” Note the difference in the following statements: “Can’t write a 5 line poem” vs. “Did not write a 5 line poem.” Notice how the first statement with “can’t” is not an observation, but an indictment against the student. While the latter statement expresses what did not happen without implying a lack of ability on the student’s part.

Use the null sign for a negative. Attempting to quickly report what was not observed proves to be cumbersome. It takes too many words to explain what was expected to be seen versus what was actually observed. A rapid way to state what was not seen, is to preface the record with a null sign “i” or the letter “N” in caps. Then write the observational statement so it reads like, “i-asked observational questions” or “N- identified past tense irregular verb.” The record states what was expected to be seen, only the sign places it in the negative.

Avoid redundancy. A frequent problem in writing anecdotal records is including needless repetition when the implication is obvious such as “the student retold the story,” “the student identified the main character,”and “the student compared....” There is no need to repeat the subject “the student.” The ARA form clarifies who is being observed. The same cautionary note applies to rewriting the student’s name multiple times. We have all been taught to write complete sentences with a subject and a predicate; however for the sake of time, it is not necessary. With focused ARA, the subject is already identified on the label by initials. There is no need to write his/her name again and the fact that the subject is a student is implied in the process. Rather than initiating writing with a subject, begin with a key verb. “Matched picture to vocabulary.”

Managing anecdotal records. Using adhesive computer address labels to record observations has several advantages (Rhodes & Nathenson-Mejia, 1992). The size forces the writer to economize. I repeat the following mantra each time I attempt to write anecdotal records, “Lean is clean; wordy is dirty.” The value of an assessment can easily be lost in a deluge of words. Succinct writing clarifies the entire process.

Another advantage of using computer address labels is that, unlike post it type sticky notes, the adhesive holds the label in place. The glue was designed to adhere to an envelop through adverse conditions of mail rooms and weather of all types. But where does one stick the labels so that they can be accessed later on?

Below is a single page ARA form. One form should be provided for each student. The ARA student form has several design features to facilitate managing records. There is a place for placing up to eight observational records. This is followed by a section for sorting observations into “Strengths” or “Needs.” The next section allows for writing instructional recommendations based upon the child’s identified “Strengths” and “Needs.” The final section is a boxed area for noting any special needs accommodations.

The teacher prepares a binder with an ARA student form for each child in the class. After anecdotal records are taken, at a convenient time during the day, the teacher simply sticks the computer address labels in the appropriate box for each child. Once a child’s form is filled, it is ready for an analysis of “Strengths” and “Needs” and instructional recommendations.

Anecdotal Records Assessment Form

Student’s Name:______________________ Evaluator’s Name:_________________









Assessment Statement

Summary of Records:___________________________________________________________________



________ _____________________________________________________________________________
Recommendation of next steps:___________________________________________________________



Accommodation for special needs:

Analysis of anecdotal records. Anecdotal records assessment is informed by comparing the standards to the child’s performance. The standards also inform the selection of strategies and activities for instructional recommendations. Periodically, analyze the compiled records for each student. The period of time between analyses may vary according to your own academic calendar. Consider analyzing the records every six to eight weeks. This is when Anecdotal Records Standards Key becomes useful. It is difficult to remember the various standards that were selected to guide observation over a period of weeks. Therefore, the Anecdotal Records Standards Key reminds the teacher of specific standards.

Anecdotal Records Standards Key


Date: 9/26

Standard: Concepts about print: Identify author, illustrator and book features


Date: 9/30

Standard: Comprehension: Ask for clarification and explanation of stories and ideas.

Organization and delivery of oral communication: Retell stories, including characters, setting and plots.


Date: 10/3

Standard: Vocabulary and concept development: Identify simple multiple-meaning words.


Date: 10/10

Standard: Written and oral English language conventions: Grammar: Identify and correctly use various parts of speech, including nouns and verbs, in writing and speaking.


Date: 10/17

Standard: Writing Applications: Write a brief narrative based on their experiences


Date: 10/21

Standard: Writing Applications: Write a brief narrative based on their experiences.
Spelling: spell frequently used, irregular words correctly.


Date: 10/28

Standard: Vocabulary and concept development: Use knowledge of individual words in unknown compound words to predict their meaning.
Vocab. & concept dev.: Identify simple multiple-meaning words.


Date: 11/5

Standard: Writing Applications: Write a brief narrative based on their experiences.
Punctuation: Uses appropriate ending punctuation marks.

Reference each standard as you comb through the anecdotal records. Decide whether the student met the standard or did not meet the standard. Code the records as follows: Mark the records with an “s” that indicate an area of strength in comparison with the appropriate standard; mark the records with an “n” to indicate an area of need in relation to the standards. Occasionally, the records note a point of information that is neither a strength or a need such as the student’s home language. Points of information are coded with an “i.” (See the example below). Additionally, you may want expand the range of coding to include anomalies or unique features with a “u,” or affective components of reading with an “a.” ARA is adaptable to the needs of the teacher.

Anecdotal Records

Student’s Name:__Julia V*.____________________Evaluator’s Name:_John Doe Teacher



9/26 J.V.

ID. book’s author, illustrator, title.

ID copyright, year, publisher
Eng. Learner=Spanish




9/30 J.V.

Asked clarifying Q.

Retold beginning of story.

MisID. main character


10/3 J.V.
Classified vocab. words in self generated categories



10/10 J.V.

Did not distinguish adjectives from verbs

Provided descriptive words to chart poem.


10/17 J.V.





10/21 J.V.

Wrote 2 paragraphs.

Used cluster diagram as a prewriting organizer.

SelfCorrected 3 words writing “libary”, “troubel” & “litle”



10/28 J.V.

Used “aerodynamic” in sentence.

Matched 2/5 vocab. words to definition



11/5 J.V.

Wrote 1 paragraph narrative w/ assistance.

No ending punctuation in 2 sentences.


Assessment Statement

Summary of Records (STRENGTHS):_CAP elements; asks clarifying Questions; retells story beginnings; Generated categories to classify words; used descriptive words; uses prewrite organizers, self-corrects writing

(NEEDS): Misidentifies characters; parts of speech; writes 1-2 paragraphs with assistance; matching words to definitions; ending punctuation
Recommendation of next steps: (STRENGTHS): Continue to read books with her; encourage “who, what, why, how”questions; develop primary/secondary categories for words; use tree diagrams as a prewrite tool for more complex organization

(NEEDS): _Character study and story mapping; compose cinquain poems to learn parts of speech; encourage 3-5 paragraph writing; match key vocab. to pictures; review ending punctuation rules.

Accommodation for special needs:

Once the records are coded for strengths, needs or information, simply list an abbreviated summary of the strengths and the needs in the space provided below the records. Separating the records into strengths and needs allows the teacher to summarize what patterns are being exhibited by the student. The summary also helps clarify and generate appropriate instructional recommendations.

Recommending appropriate instructional strategies/activities. Once the anecdotal records are summarized in terms of strengths/needs student specific recommendations can be made. In essence the teacher is customizing instruction and support for the individual student. To be effective and practical, the recommendations should be task oriented. New teachers have the most difficulty with this part of the process. It is not uncommon to see recommendations written as teacher strategies rather than student activities. A common trap they fall into is to recommend a word wall to address any number of needs related to literacy development without specifying what the child is to do. To me it sounds like something a kin to, “Take two word walls and see me in the morning.” Without a task associated to the strategy, the recommendation can become meaningless.

Remember to write recommendations with the child’s parent in mind. What would you say to a parent? A parent would need specific tasks to do with their child like sorting words into families of -ar, -er, -ir, -or, -ur. Providing task-oriented recommendations based upon the content standards clarifies the recommendations and ensures the practicality of the activity.

A quality ARA is like a well woven piece. Each component is interrelated. Looking at the assessment, one can see how the observations are standards-based, accurately coded and summarized in terms of strengths/needs, and how the selection of specific recommendations is the outcome. There is a strong relationship among each of the components. In other words, with focused ARA the recommendations are the direct result of the observation and analysis. The focused ARA represents a complete process in observation and assessment.
Applications of focused ARA There are three primary applications of focused ARA, formative assessment for determining instruction that matches the strengths and needs of the students, summative assessment for conferencing with families about a child’s progress, and a combination of both formative and summative assessment for consultation with a support staff.

Using and maintaining focused ARA generates substantive teacher observations as formative assessment for instructional planning. In contrast to standardized testing which is far removed from the classroom setting, focused ARA utilizes the insights of an observant teacher to provide quality instruction. The process is based upon classroom experience, performance and content standards. It allows the teacher to design instruction built upon individual strengths and needs. Focused ARA underlines the fact that standards-based performance assessment requires a relationship with the student to match strategies and activities to strengths and needs. The recommendations are tailored to the student.

Focused ARA functions is a useful tool for summative assessment. The focus ARA outlines teacher comments to cite observations, summarize strengths and needs and provide well thought out recommendations. When reporting a child’s progress in a parent conference, focused ARA can be used to cite how a child performed to meet content standards on specific dates and how the teacher planned to address strengths and needs. Summarizing strengths establishes a positive note. Parents see from the outset that the teacher is advocating on behalf of their child. Summarizing needs follows naturally and provides the foundation for individualized recommendations. In the case of special needs, the focused ARA allows for addressing special accommodations.

Often times in consultation with support staff such as administrators, specialists, counselors, and school psychologist, they request to see a record of six weeks of interventions prior to developing an alternative plan for instruction. Focused ARA meets that requirement in an organized fashion providing evidence of student performance and teacher recommendations. This kind of information organized on a single sheet of paper can be an invaluable tool to collaboration with the entire support system at a school site.


In an educational environment that attributes significant weight to standardized measures for assessment, focused ARA provides teachers an authentic assessment tool to record observations in light of content standards. As part of a regular observational rhythm in the classroom, the teacher can manage records, analyze observational data, and provide standards-based recommendations. The system facilitates communication among the child, the child’s family, and educational professionals participating in the assessment process. In sum, focused ARA is a tool to work common ground across authentic and standardized assessment.


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