Not More, but Better – Curriculum based reading tests

A post over at edwise reinforces my feelings on how we test students and what we require them to read.

from edwise

In a New York Times op-ed, E.D. Hirsch, Jr. argues for a simple change to reading tests: ditch the random comprehension passages in favor of curriculum-focused ones. He made this case last year in the AFT’s American Educator, which we covered here at Edwize. Key passage:

Students now must take annual reading tests from third grade through eighth. If the reading passages on each test were culled from each grade’s specific curricular content in literature, science, history, geography and the arts, the tests would exhibit what researchers call “consequential validity” — 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 — 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.

We are going about education all wrong. There are so many paths to knowledge. The key is getting kids interested and keeping them interested. Show them that they can learn and discover on their own and outside of the classroom. When it comes to reading, getting children involved and excited is the most important. There will be time to discover classics, or present them in conjunction with other social science lessons. Getting children to read is the biggest challenge. Let’s say for example, you let students choose their own reading material. A student picks Twilight. After they’re finished you can introduce them to Dracula, open up comparisons between the two, etc. The possibilities are endless.

On the issue of testing, ultimately we are trying to examine if a student has a certain understanding of a given material. If a student can prove that they can analyze a passage of Harry Potter, answering particular questions, then that still proves that can perform the task, just as much as a random passage would. We are purposely trying to trip up our students. Of course the greatest difficulty with this method would be coming up with relevant tests for each school and classroom. That would be a bit impractical and expensive. However as a classroom method I see this as a successful approach.

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