If low performance on reading tests is a function of poor content knowledge, and if broad swaths of the school day are wasted practicing reading strategies on content-free reading, why not solve both problems with reading tests that cover explicit content standards? That’s the “modest proposal” put forth by Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. in the new issue of American Educator (PDF).
Hirsch has long argued that content knowledge is the key to reading comprehension, and describes the long periods devoted to language arts, the de rigueur reading block, as a “cognitive wasteland.” Instead he proposes language arts standards that specify literary works and techniques, and directly correspond to the content standards in other subjects—especially science and social studies. Why? Because some of those non-literary topics are going to show up in passages on the reading tests.
“So my modest proposal is that reading tests should contain passages about specific topics taught not just in literature, but in all other subjects taught in that grade, except for math,” writes Hirsch. “For instance, if third-grade language arts standards specify Alice in Wonderland, third-grade science standards call for studying the speed of light, and third-grade social studies standards include the Vikings’ explorations of North America, then passages on the third-grade reading test should cover those same topics. We would then have true curriculum-based reading tests instead of the mysterious tests we now have. This cunning device would make tests fairer and pedagogically more useful, and boost our students’ abilities.”
As long as reading is viewed as a discrete set of skills that can be transferred from text to text, practiced and perfected, schools will continue to spend a disproportionate amount of time on test prep. Hirsch’s proposal is a nifty piece of intellectual jujitsu, which would make test prep make sense.