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UC Researchers Awarded $2.3M to Study Vocabulary Assessment Tool

July 21, 2009

MERCED — Teaching language is a tough job, but proving
student comprehension is even tougher.

A team of researchers from University of California campuses in
Merced and Santa Cruz hope to change that when it comes to
vocabulary. They believe they have created a new approach to
assessing vocabulary that not only shows how students improve in
their understanding of words, but also helps teachers assess the
finer points of comprehension.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education
Sciences (IES) has awarded $2.3 million to

Jack Vevea
of UC Merced, and Judith Scott and Susan Flinspach of
UC Santa Cruz to develop and examine this new assessment method on
a large scale with fourth- and fifth-graders across California.

The traditional method to judge a child’s vocabulary knowledge
is to test knowledge of definitions using a small set of words.
These words are chosen for their ability to discriminate between
students and are not necessarily tied to the content taught in
schools. Using this method, the child is either determined to know
the word or not based on a single answer to a single question. The
new assessment tool is based on words from textbooks and novels
that students are likely to encounter. In addition, this tool
explores levels of knowledge.

“A definition provides one bit of information about a word,”
said Scott, the lead researcher on the project. “Knowing a word
also involves knowing other related words, knowing the part of
speech, and knowing how it can be used.”

This new tool gives educators a fine-grained understanding of a
student’s comprehension. Instead of focusing on a single answer to
a single question, children will answer a variety of questions
about each vocabulary word on the test. Those answers will be
scaled to create a score indicating each student’s level of
comprehension for each word.

California Standards Test

Vevea’s role in the project is to handle the statistical aspects
of the process of developing and testing the tool. A quantitative
psychologistat UC
Merced since 2007, Vevea develops methods to analyze what does and
doesn’t work.

“This grant gives us the opportunity to develop this new tool,
and to assess its effectiveness for a diverse population of
children to find out whether it can accurately measure
comprehension despite differences in the students’ socioeconomic
and ethnic backgrounds,” he said.

For his part in assessing the tool’s effectiveness among the
range of student participants, Vevea’s share of the grant award
will be about $400,000. His portion of the project is important,
Scott said, because school districts need to see concrete data that
shows how well this tool measures vocabulary comprehension before
they can consider switching testing methods.

“The most important part of this research is the application,”
she said. “If we’re going to spend four years developing and
studying this method, we need to be able to show teachers and
administrators whether it works consistently better than what they
are doing now.”



Tonya Luiz

Office of Communications