Reading and knowing

Reading tests that measure grade-level knowledge as well as skills would help students build comprehension, writes E.D. Hirsch, Core Knowledge founder and author of The Knowledge Deficit, in a New York Times op-ed.

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 they’ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.

Hirsch advocates using reading passages on tests taken  “from each grade’s specific curricular content in literature, science, history, geography and the arts.”

Test preparation would focus on the content of the tests, rather than continue the fruitless attempt to teach test taking.

In a 1988 study, researchers gave strong and weak readers in seventh and eighth grade a reading test with passages about baseball.  “Low-level readers with high baseball knowledge significantly outperformed strong readers with little background knowledge,” he writes.

This reform would push states to set specific learning goals, Hirsch adds. Teaching to the test would mean teaching the curriculum.  Disadvantaged students, who rely on their teachers to teach them knowledge and vocabulary they can’t learn at home, will have a chance to catch up.