Reading Test Dummies
No surprise here that Hirsch wants "better defined standards" to drive a national test to assess a national curriculum. And he just happens to have that curriculum ready.
By E. D. Hirsch Jr.
IN his recent education speech, President Obama asked the states to raise their standards and develop Ă˘€śassessments that donĂ˘€™t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test.Ă˘€ť With the No Child Left Behind law up for reauthorization this year, the onus is now on lawmakers and educators to find a way to maintain accountability while mitigating the current tendency to reduce schooling to a joyless grind of practice exams and empty instruction in Ă˘€śreading strategies.Ă˘€ť
Before we throw away bubble tests, though, we should institute a relatively simple change that would lessen the worst effects of the test-prep culture and improve education in the bargain.
These much maligned, fill-in-the-bubble reading tests are technically among the most reliable and valid tests available. The problem is that the reading passages used in these tests are random. They are not aligned with explicit grade-by-grade content standards. Children are asked to read and then answer multiple-choice questions about such topics as taking a hike in the Appalachians even though theyĂ˘€™ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.
Teachers canĂ˘€™t prepare for the content of the tests and so they substitute practice exams and countless hours of instruction in comprehension strategies like Ă˘€śfinding the main idea.Ă˘€ť Yet despite this intensive test preparation, reading scores have paradoxically stagnated or declined in the later grades.
This is because the schools have imagined that reading is merely a Ă˘€śskillĂ˘€ť that can be transferred from one passage to another, and that reading scores can be raised by having young students endlessly practice strategies on trivial stories. Tragic amounts of time have been wasted that could have been devoted to enhancing knowledge and vocabulary, which would actually raise reading comprehension scores.
LetĂ˘€™s imagine a different situation. Students now must take annual reading tests from third grade through eighth. If the reading passages on each test were culled from each gradeĂ˘€™s specific curricular content in literature, science, history, geography and the arts, the tests would exhibit what researchers call Ă˘€śconsequential validityĂ˘€ť Ă˘€” meaning that the tests would actually help improve education. Test preparation would focus on the content of the tests, rather than continue the fruitless attempt to teach test taking.
A 1988 study indicated why this improvement in testing should be instituted. Experimenters separated seventh- and eighth-grade students into two groups Ă˘€” strong and weak readers as measured by standard reading tests. The students in each group were subdivided according to their baseball knowledge. Then they were all given a reading test with passages about baseball. Low-level readers with high baseball knowledge significantly outperformed strong readers with little background knowledge.
The experiment confirmed what language researchers have long maintained: the key to comprehension is familiarity with the relevant subject. For a student with a basic ability to decode print, a reading-comprehension test is not chiefly a test of formal techniques but a test of background knowledge.
Our current reading tests are especially unfair to disadvantaged students. The test passages may be random, but they arenĂ˘€™t knowledge-neutral. A child who knows about hiking in the Appalachians will have a better chance of getting the passage right; a child who doesnĂ˘€™t, wonĂ˘€™t. Yet where outside of school is a disadvantaged student to pick up the implicit knowledge that is being probed on the reading tests?
To base tests on what is actually taught in school would not only be fairer to disadvantaged students than the current Kafkaesque system of testing, it would enable such students to gradually narrow the gap in their general knowledge and vocabulary. Eventually, weĂ˘€™d see improvement in the reading levels of all students.
This reform would have another excellent consequence: Teachers and students might begin to demand content standards that are more specific than, say, this third grade standard from Ohio: Ă˘€śCompare the cultural practices and products of the local community with those of other communities in Ohio, the United States and countries of the world.Ă˘€ť It would be far more useful to set out what exactly children should learn about the 13 colonies or Paul RevereĂ˘€™s ride.
Better-defined standards in history, science, literature and the arts combined with knowledge-based reading tests would encourage the schools to conceive the whole course of study as a reading curriculum Ă˘€” exactly what a good knowledge-based curriculum should be. Schools would also begin to use classroom time more productively, which is important for all students and critically so for disadvantaged ones.
Reform of standards and tests needs to begin in the earliest grades. Knowledge and vocabulary are plants of slow organic growth. By eighth grade, after the cumulative benefits of a more coherent curriculum and more productive tests, students would begin to score much better on all reading exams, including those that arenĂ˘€™t based on a school curriculum. More important, they would be prepared to be capable, productive citizens.
We do not need to abandon either the principle of accountability or the fill-in-the-bubble format. Rather we need to move from teaching to the test to tests that are worth teaching to.
E. D. Hirsch Jr. is the author of Ă˘€śThe Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children.Ă˘€ť
E. D. Hirsch Jr.
New York Times
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