Thought-provoking op-ed by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. in the online NY Times today. Here are some excerpts:
IN his recent education speech, President Obama asked the states to raise their standards and develop “assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test.” With the No Child Left Behind law up for reauthorization this year, the onus is now on lawmakers and educators to find a way to maintain accountability while mitigating the current tendency to reduce schooling to a joyless grind of practice exams and empty instruction in “reading strategies.”
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.
Later, it continued:
Let’s imagine a different situation. 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.
And later he he wraps up:
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.
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.
As the parent of a student who is really smart yet freezes on standardized tests and performs horribly even though she knows the material cold, I find this extremely interesting. (Click here to read the entire article.)
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