The New York Times rode along with 75 Harlem kindergarteners last week on a field trip to the Queens County Farm Museum to gaze at cows and sheep “not only for a glimpse of rural life, but to rack up extra points on standardized tests.”
New York State’s English and math exams include several questions each year about livestock, crops and the other staples of the rural experience that some educators say flummox city children, whose knowledge of nature might begin and end at Central Park. On the state English test this year, for instance, third graders were asked questions relating to chickens and eggs. In math, they had to count sheep and horses.
The Harlem Success Academy has “invented a form of test preparation,” in the Times’ telling. “The schools haul their students to a farm each year, hoping to expose them to the rural life and lift their scores.”
Someone here may be doing a teeny bit of overselling. If HSA has taken to heart the connection between their students’ background knowledge and reading comprehension, that’s terrific. Broad general knowledge certainly correlates with reading ability, but the test of a school’s dedication to that proposition is best measured in its commitment to a rich, well-rounded curriculum day after day, not the occasional field trip. Unfortunately, the Times story doesn’t shed any light on the school’s overall approach to building background knowledge apart from its ostensibly novel “field study” idea.
Mind you, I’m thrilled to see the Times point out that “prior knowledge of a subject can significantly improve a child’s performance on tests.” It’s a connection that can’t be made too often. It might have been more helpful however, had they substituted “reading comprehension” for “performance on tests” in that sentence. Creating the impression that kids should see cow or pick a pumpkin because farming might come up on a test years later strikes me as a bit of a stretch (whether it’s on the part of the Times or the school is unclear). Background knowledge and vocabulary move in mysterious ways, creating unexpected and unpredictable connections. At the Early Ed Watch Blog, Lisa Guernsey offers a somewhat more nuanced take:
A child who has explored a pumpkin patch will have a much easier time in the future when he or she comes across paragraphs about vines and tendrils, maturing fruit and harvest time. And it’s not just children’s reading skills, of course, that can improve. Their grasp of science and social studies becomes more sophisticated too.
Indeed, if there’s anything that rankles about the Times account, it’s viewing a field trip through the simple—and simplistic—lens of testing. “I want to do better on homework and tests,” five-year-old Julliana Jimenez tells the paper. At the risk of being retrograde, it’s a bit dispiriting to hear a kindergartener expressing any concern at all about tests, which don’t start until 3rd grade in New York. One wonders where she picked it up. Build broad general knowledge in children. That will lead to broad language competence. Let the testing take care of itself.