"Reading Test Dummies"

This thoughtful (and thought-provoking) op-ed appeared in yesterday's NY Times. I feel the writer, E.D. Hirsch Jr., does a brilliant job in outlining how to have easier-to-take tests that are meaningful assessments. Mr. Hirsch is the author of "The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children." From the piece:

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

"This is because the schools have imagined that reading is merely a “skill” 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."

He discusses a 1988 study of readers:

"A 1988 study indicated why this improvement in testing should be instituted. Experimenters separated seventh- and eighth-grade students into two groups — 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."

How it would reading link all subjects on a test?

"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 — 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 aren’t based on a school curriculum. More important, they would be prepared to be capable, productive citizens."

I love his last line:

"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."


dan dempsey said…
E.D. Hirsch is the man.
Several schools nationwide have implemented a core knowledge curriculum.

Where is our Core Knowledge alternative school?

or are we backing Core Ignorance instead?
Unknown said…
Great post!
seattle citizen said…
With new technologies available, it is possible to give a "bubble" test that does align with actual content.

The Scholastic Reading Inventory, for instance, uses a computerized multiple choice (bubble), where a student reads a passage and then selects the right word to fill in the blank in a sentence about the passage. These passages are generic (the cool thing about them is that they are adaptive: the program registers the student's success (or lack thereof) as the student answers questions, adjusting the questions up or down to, finally, determine levels...pretty amazing...)

To make this sort of technology content-relevant, one could picture someone in a school creating questions (and there a lot...) or, if there is a common curriculum, at a district level creating questions.

So this technology could be customized to individual schools or to districts, making the questions much more meaningful to the specific population.

It would be time-consuming, but worth it!

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