Reading exam can test science, history

What gets tested gets taught. Ohio is trying to decide whether to test science and social studies every year, writes Aaron Churchill. It would prevent narrowing the curriculum to only math and English language arts. But teachers and parents already are complaining there’s too much testing.

shutterstock_156369128Core Knowledge Blog’s Lisa Hansel proposes a solution: Test students’ ability to read and comprehend science and social studies texts on topics they’ve been taught.

Reading comprehension tests contain a random smattering of “common” topics that “inevitably privilege students who have acquired broad knowledge (usually at home),” Hansel writes.

Unlike English language arts standards, science and social studies standards usually specify some core content to be taught in each grade.  All students will have a chance to learn the background knowledge and vocabulary necessary to understand the readings. “For the cost and time of just one test, we would have a decent gauge of three subjects,” writes Hansel.

It makes sense to me.

Reading tests hurt teaching

Testing “makes clear that every student matters,”, writes Fordham’s Andy Smarick.

Robert Pondiscio agrees. But reading tests “do more harm than good” by encouraging ineffective teaching practices, he writes in Prospect.

Reading comprehension is not a skill or a body of content that can be taught. The annual reading tests we administer to children through eighth grade are de facto tests of background knowledge and vocabulary. Moreover, they are not “instructionally sensitive.” Success or failure can have little to do with what is taught.

. . . a substantial body of research has consistently shown that reading comprehension relies on the reader knowing at least something about the topic he or she is reading about (and sometimes quite a lot). The effects of prior knowledge can be profound: Students who are ostensibly “poor” readers can suddenly comprehend quite well when reading about a subject they know a lot about — even outperforming “good” readers who lack background knowledge the “poor” readers possess.

Reading tests, however, treat reading comprehension as a broad, generalized skill.

Even the best schools find it much easier to raise math scores than reading scores, writes Pondiscio. That’s because math is learned primarily at school, while reading comprehension reflects the sum of children’s “experiences, interests, and knowledge, both in and out school.”

Text passages on reading tests don’t draw on what’s taught in school. New York’s Core-aligned fifth-grade reading test featured passages about BMX bike racing and sailing. The sixth-grade test featured a poem about “pit ponies,” horse and donkeys used in mines, and a passage on loggerhead turtles.

Some kids will have the background knowledge to understand these passages. Others will be clueless. And it will have little to do with the teacher’s competence.

Tests, not standards, “drive classroom practice,” writes Pondiscio.  Neither new nor old reading tests encourage teachers to build students’ knowledge so they can understand what they read.

He suggests making reading tests low stakes for teachers, testing decoding up to grade four and then using subject-matter tests or “curriculum-based tests with reading passages based on topics taught in school.” If fifth graders are learning about New York state history and astronomy, test them on readings about state history and astronomy. But that would require a common curriculum.

Tech levels reading, but is it too easy?

Should we tailor difficulty of a school text to child’s comfort level or make them sweat? asks Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report. Schools are using technology to adjust texts to students’ reading levels.

Newsela, an online reading program for students in grade three through high school offers stories about current events “written to multiple levels of complexity,” writes Paul.

File photo.  (AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach)For example, a standard news story might start:

“A man who traveled from Liberia to visit family members in Texas tested positive for Ebola on Tuesday, marking the outbreak’s first diagnosis outside of Africa, health officials said.”

An easier version would read: “A man who traveled from Liberia to visit family members in Texas tested positive for Ebola on Tuesday.”

Even simpler: “A man in Texas has tested positive for Ebola.”

For those who don’t know what “positive” or “Ebola” means: “A man in Texas has a deadly disease called Ebola.”

A Newsela executive tells Paul that student often adjust the reading level up to learn more about a news story that interests them.

This is catching on quickly in schools, where teachers are expected to teach the same content to students at very different levels of proficiency. Students can read about breaking news. There’s no need for stacks of leveled readers.

However, it contradict’s Common Core’s insistence that all students read the same complex texts, even if it’s a struggle to understand what they read.

Beyond decoding, kids need content

A high-poverty Baltimore school raised third-grade reading scores dramatically, writes Education Trust’s Karin Chenoweth in The Importance of Teaching Content. She wonder what had worked — and why fifth-grade scores weren’t going up too.

Dedicated teachers had worked hard to teach kids “the phonemes (the sounds found in the English language) and phonics (the sounds mapped to letters and combinations of letters) so that the kids could decode words and read fluently.”

A student “read a folk tale set in China, fluently and with expression,” she recalls. But the assistant principal said the school wasn’t teaching students anything about China.

Third-grade reading tests usually consist of very simple stories and text, making them primarily tests of decoding — which was what that school was teaching impressively well. By fourth and fifth grade, however, reading tests have more complex stories and texts that require more sophisticated vocabularies and considerable amounts of background knowledge. Kids can no longer figure out most of the words from the context of the stories; they need to actually know the words and the concepts they represent.

If schools aren’t teaching kids an awful lot of content — that is, history, science, literature, and the arts — the same kids who do well on third-grade tests can fail later tests — not because they can’t decode the words on the tests, but because they cannot understand the words once they’ve decoded them. And they can’t understand them because the words haven’t been taught.

Children with educated parents come to school with background knowledge and rich vocabularies, she writes. Others need to be taught so they can understand the world around them — not just to pass fifth-grade reading tests. 

In Seven Myths of Education, teacher Daisy Christodoulou describes her struggles to teach in a high-poverty school in England. She’d been trained to set up discussions and group projects and encourage problem solving — but not to teach content systematically.

Then she discovered cognitive science research “demonstrating that people need a large store of knowledge in order to think creatively, have deep discussions, and solve problems,” writes Chenoweth.

Christodoulou’s seven myths are:

- Facts prevent understanding
– Teacher-led instruction is passive
– The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
– You can always just look it up
-We should teach transferable skills
– Projects and activities are the best way to learn
– Teaching knowledge is indoctrination.

E.D. Hirsch calls the book a “game changer.”

Here’s a review and an interview with Christodoulou.

Online skimming vs. reading Middlemarch

Skimming online makes “deep reading” more difficult, according to the Washington Post. As adults spend five hours a day on laptops or mobile devices, we’re developing “digital brains.”

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. 

College students can’t read the classics, professors tell Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

 “They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”

. . . “My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?”

Daniel Willingham, also a cognitive scientist, doesn’t think brains change that easily. Don’t blame the Internet, he writes on Real Clear Education. We Can Still Think and Read Critically, We Just Don’t Want to

A more plausible possibility is that we’re not less capable of reading complex prose, but less willing to put in the work. Our criterion for concluding, “this is boring, this is not paying off,” has been lowered because the Web makes it so easy to find something else to read, watch, or listen to.

“The good news is that our brains are not being deep-fried by the Web; we can still read deeply and think carefully,” he concludes. “The bad news is that we don’t want to.”

Readers don’t understand more when they read for pleasure on paper versus on screen, he writes. Comprehension is the same for textbook reading too, though on-screen reading takes longer.

Reading incomprehension

As a former teacher with a master’s degree, Laurie Levy thought she’d be able to help her seven-year-old granddaughter with her first-grade reading homework, she writes in Reading Incomprehension. But it’s a new Common Core world.

My granddaughter read a non-fiction passage about the moon from her McGraw-Hill reader, Wonders. The homework was a series of reading comprehension questions laid out in boxes labeled “cause” and “effect.” . . . She had to shorten her answers to fit the boxes.

When I tried to see if she truly comprehended the reading about why the moon waxes and wanes and how astronauts landed on the moon, she admonished me. “No, Grandma,” she said. “We just look for a sentence in the book and copy it exactly.”

After reading a fable about How The Bat Got His Wings, her granddaughter divided the story into firstnextthen, and last“Sequencing . . . did not show me that she truly comprehended the story,” writes Levy.

Levy “tried to relate the fable to her life,” but the seven-year-old would have none of it. “What you are saying is not in the story,” the granddaughter said.

Not everything that claims to be Core-aligned really is, but the “in the story” stuff is a Common Core imperative.

Empty pails don’t catch fire

Reading discriminates, writes Robert Pondiscio in City Journal. “A child growing up in a book-filled home with articulate, educated parents who fill his early years with reading, travel, museum visits, and other forms of enrichment arrives at school with enormous advantages in knowledge and vocabulary.” If schools teach ignore the gaps in knowledge and language, disadvantaged kids will fall even farther behind.

Most reading curricula try to develop comprehension “skills” uncoupled from subject-specific knowledge, he writes. In theory, students can apply these all-purpose “reading strategies” to anything.

Education is “not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire,” goes a popular teacher adage. Empty buckets seldom burst into flames.

Children who don’t know enough to understand what they read will not “catch” a love of reading, Pondiscio concludes.

“Research on the necessity of background knowledge for reading comprehension is decisive and uncontroversial,” writes Mark Bauerlein. Yet reading instruction still favors “comprehension strategies” (“identify the main idea,” etc.) over “acquisition of general knowledge.”

‘Readability’ is unreliable

PictureStuck in the Middle is a collection of comics that’s way too graphic about middle-school sex and swearing, writes Momma Bear. She advised an irate mother to complain to the school principal.

Then Momma Bear wondered why Accelerated Reader labels the book a 3.0, readable by third graders, and recommends it for grades 4 to 8. Renaissance Learning, which owns AR, explained that content doesn’t count. The company’s readability formula measures text complexity. “Graphic novels tend to produce a lower readability level because of the short sentence structure.”

AR also provides an “interest level” for each book and warns of “objectionable content” in book summaries. “Because of your concern,” the company raised the Interest Level from MG to MG+ (Grade 6 and above), the email said.

Reading formulas are unreliable, writes Dan Willingham on RealClearEducation, his new blog home.

Educators are often uneasy with readability formulas; the text characteristics are things like “words per sentence,” and “word frequency” (i.e., how many rare words are in the text). These seem far removed from the comprehension processes that would actually make a text more appropriate for third grade rather than fourth.

To put it another way, there’s more to reading than simple properties of words and sentences. There’s building meaning across sentences, and connecting meaning of whole paragraphs into arguments, and into themes. Readability formulas represent a gamble. The gamble is that the word- and sentence-level metrics will be highly correlated with the other, more important characteristics.

Only the Dale-Chall formula is “consistently above chance” in a new study,  writes Willingham. It’s easier to assess readability for high-ability than for low-ability students.

Close reading vs. reading

Common Core standards call for teaching “close reading.” How does that differ from plain old reading? Lisa Hansel tackles the question on Core Knowledge Blog.

Many students read to find the main idea, summarize it and make a prediction, she writes. It’s the common comprehension strategy. The details don’t matter, so skimming is fine.

As an example, she provides a Feb. 5, 2014 New York Times story on security concerns at the Olympics.

Main idea: Russia has lots of violence and unrest; the Olympics might not be safe.

Summary: The Olympics might not be safe because Russia has had lots of violence and unrest for decades and currently has people trying to attack the games. Over time, a separatist movement morphed into and attracted small terrorist cells. Even if attempted attacks during the Olympics are prevented, Russia will remain under threat for the foreseeable future.

Prediction: At least one attack on the Olympics will be attempted and prevented; Russia will remain under threat for the foreseeable future.

That’s the skimmer’s version, she writes.  If she were reading the story closely with teenagers, many questions would arise:

Where are all these places? Who and what are nearby?

Is “President Vladimir V. Putin” a president in the sense used in the United States or is the term defined differently in different countries?

What is the Kremlin? Are we to take comfort in its security operations or are there historical reasons to question their apparent good?

What is an independent caliphate?

What is a nihilistic ideology and what are the particular features in this case?

Soviet Union—what’s that? It collapsed? Then what happened?

Close reading requires learning recent Russian history. “We don’t read for the sake of summarizing or predicting plot twists; we read to learn,” writes Hansel. “In our speed-obsessed world, maybe that does deserve a special name.”

The new reading lesson

Common Core standards will change reading lessons, writes Timothy Shanahan in The American Educator.  To start with, the new standards specify the complexity of reading texts at each grade level, writes Shanahan, an emeritus professor who directs the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

That’s a big change. For years, teachers have been told each student should read a “just right” book that’s not too hard (frustrating) or easy (boring). Common Core will require much harder texts, writes Shanahan.

Unfortunately, teacher preparation typically includes few tools for helping students to learn from challenging texts. No wonder teachers so often resort to reading the texts to students, using round-robin reading, or, in history or science, not using the textbook at all.

Common Core proponents also want to cut down on time spent preparing students to read, so more time can be spent on “close reading,” Shanahan writes.

Reading preparation includes discussions of relevant background information, explanations of context in which the text was produced, previews or overviews of the text itself, “picture walks,” predictions, and purpose-setting.

. . . If students are to read about tide pools, for example, teachers are counseled to start out by asking questions such as, “Have you ever visited a beach? What plants and animals did you see near the shore?” Or if students are to read Charlotte’s Web, they might first learn the biographical details of E. B. White’s life.

. . . I recently observed a primary-grade reading lesson that included such a thorough and painstaking picture walk (previewing and discussing each illustration prior to reading) that eventually there was no reason for reading the eight-sentence story; there was no additional information to be learned.

“Close reading” puts the stress back on reading, he writes. But there’s evidence that some preparation aids comprehension. That’s important “at a time when texts are supposed to get harder for kids.”