Why has the No Child Left Behind law left so many children behind? According to the latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the reading achievement of eighth-graders has declined since the law was passed in 2001, and the large reading gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children — “the achievement gap” — has stayed where it was. Today’s eighth-graders had recorded gains in fourth grade, but these have not led to improvements in later grades — when reading scores actually count for a student’s future.
Those in Congress in charge of crafting revisions should understand that the law’s disappointing results owe less to defects in the law than to the methods and ideas schools use in their attempts to fulfill the “adequate yearly progress” mandate for all groups of students; this causes schools, as many complain, to teach to reading tests rather than educate children. But intensive test preparation by schools has resulted in lower reading test scores in later grades. “Teaching to the test” does not effectively teach to the test after all.
Studies of reading comprehension show that knowing something of the topic you’re reading about is the most important variable in comprehension. After a child learns to sound out words, comprehension is mostly knowledge. Many technical studies support the assertion that after students can fluently sound out words, relevant knowledge is the crucial difference between students who are good or poor readers. In light of the relevant science, an analysis of the textbooks and methods used to teach reading and language arts — for three hours a day in many places — indicates some of the reasons for the disappointing later results. These test-prep materials are constructed on the mistaken view that reading comprehension is a skill that can be perfected by practice, as typing can be. This how-to conception of reading has caused schools to spend a lot of unproductive time on trivial content and on drills such as “finding the main idea” and less time on history, science and the arts.