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Prepare Students for Tests With Knowledge


In this New York Times op-ed, E.D. Hirsch Jr. calls for improvement in the reading passages on standardized tests to reflect the content of the curriculum. Hirsch has railed against the teaching of reading strategies over subject matter, and, as the founder of the Core Knowledge curriculum, promotes a rigorous, content-laden framework for K-12 schooling.

"Teachers can’t prepare for the content of the tests and so they substitute practice exams and countless hours of instruction in comprehension strategies like 'finding the main idea,'” he wrote. Test scores have not show significant improvement, however, "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."

There's a lot of speculation about what the next federal reading initiative will look like. Hirsch has been critical of the kind of skills-driven instruction that defined Reading First, and has called for more attention to vocabulary and background knowledge.

What do you propose?


I don't agree with Hirsch on many things, but he makes a fine point here. Teaching at the high school and college level, I've seen so many students who were reportedly "good" readers in the early grades, struggle as they progress because they could not transfer generic ability to read stories to very different reading tasks required in different content areas.
What a wonderful concept: Prepare students for tests by having them read significant, content rich--uh, engaging--material.

I agree that Hirsch makes a good point here: it is about the inability of our current testing system to determine whether students are being taught to think. In my recent book (Inside Urban Charter Schools) I identified several high preforming schools (on the well-regarded MCAS-Massachusetts State Assessment System) where the instruction within the classrooms was remarkable low level. The cognitive demand on students was low with an emphasis on procedure and not on conceptual understanding. Students were not being asked to think for themselves, to conjecture, to evaluate, to assess. Why? Because the tests which holds these schools accountable do not measure higher order thinking.
Hirsch is right that it is the quality of the existing tests that places an unnecessary low ceiling on what we ask kids to know and be able to do. Its time to spend some of the stimulus money on developing better measures of student knowledge.

Writing tests [SAT, NAEP, etc.] are also without content. Someone once told me that writing tests cannot require any previous knowledge, because then "minorites won't do as well." Writing tests without content are necessarily very superficial and unable to tell much about the writing abilities of those tested.

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