When Reading Tests Attack (Content)

by Guest Blogger
August 3rd, 2011

By Rachel Levy

During  my first year of full-time teaching ESOL and Social Studies at an inner-city Washington, DC, high school, my principal approached me and told me that my students had come to her saying how much they were enjoying history class. I explained to her my intent to teach content but with a reading and writing intensive emphasis, to build those skills which were quite low among our school’s students. She was enthusiastic and I was thrilled.

A few weeks later, she attended our Social Studies department meeting where she explained to us that since there were no standardized tests in Social Studies, from that point forward, we were required to spend one-fifth of our class time teaching the Stanford-9 Reading Test.  For each of my students, I had to make charts based on testing data showing the skill (for example “context clues”) and how they did on that skill.  Then I was supposed to target my lesson plans to teach and remedy each student’s individual weaknesses. This didn’t seem right, but there was no protesting this: I wanted to help my students, she was my boss, and she was telling me what to do. Furthermore, such instruction and data collection had to be documented in our lesson plan books and during classroom observations.

This is where and how NCLB-applied pressure and high-stakes testing cause poor practices. Some counter, “The testing itself doesn’t cause teaching to the test in an ineffective way. Why don’t teachers simply adopt effective practices, like Core Knowledge?” While testing shouldn’t (in principle) encourage poor practice, unfortunately, my experiences in the classroom and now as a parent shows that national policy incentives mandating high stakes testing change classroom teaching for the worse. Ground-level feedback can help us to see how to fix accountability better than philosophical debates about the nature of testing.

I agree that it’s completely logical, obvious even, as Andrei Radulescu-banu put it on Robert’s recent post, that A=>B (Please read  his comment in its entirety). Certainly, test scores will gradually rise if a well-rounded and knowledge-rich curriculum is implemented. However, many educators are hindered in following this logic by performance pressure and by belief.

There were vague and all-encompassing standards (think horoscopes), however there was no social studies curriculum in DCPS at the time (there still isn’t).  By collaborating with my colleagues and relying on my own education and knowledge of social studies topics I came up with unit and lesson plans pretty easily. However, I really struggled to come up with lesson plans for teaching the Stanford-9 Reading Test.  I thought at the time that it was because I didn’t have much background in reading instruction, that I was missing something. Eventually I figured out that it wasn’t that I was missing something, it was because “teaching” the Stanford-9 Reading Test made absolutely no sense (and Tim Shanahan explains here that such an approach doesn’t work). So I taught history and geography as much as I could and I taught what I imagined “teaching the Stanford-9 Reading Test” was only when I had to, and made sure I had passable documentation in my lesson plan book.

In my second year, I got braver. In faculty meetings when we talked in small groups about how to get our test scores up, I voiced my opinion that the way to get test scores up was via an implicit route—to teach content and have students read and write as much as possible. I stated my skepticism that one could teach the Stanford-9 Reading Test or that students could learn the Stanford-9 test, but except in private asides, I had no supporters. And this was before Michelle Rhee came to town, mind you. Before NCLB, teaching content to struggling students was unappreciated; now, it’s practically an act of subversion.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have little tolerance for the secondary teachers who say their job isn’t to help struggling readers. Yes, kids should be reading well by the time they get to middle and high school. But for whatever reason (and it’s probably a good idea to try and figure out that reason), many aren’t. Accept it and adjust your practice accordingly. If you’re not prepared to teach and help struggling readers or even non-readers, you have no business teaching in most American public school classrooms. But this does not mean giving a student reading on a first grade level a tenth grade textbook and telling her to read it. Rather it means finding content-relevant materials appropriate to students’ age and maturity and books on their level, scaffolding, and building up.

I also don’t blame my principal. Downtown was breathing down her neck, judging her on reading and math scores.  Rather than fight a losing battle that could cost her her position (while she was ambitious for herself, she also cared deeply about the students in her charge and about the school she had built from scratch), she embraced it all, including putting on Stanford-9 pep rallies. I am not making that up; these pep rallies happen.

In addition to what I describe above and the bankrupty of the content of the tests themselves, described by Diana Senechal here, another fundamental problem is that many of the advocates of reforms centered on testing-based accountability actually believe that kids who can’t read (decode) at all well should not be learning content, that they have to learn reading first and then they can learn content, that teaching a content-based curriculum is useless if kids can’t read. “Let’s focus on teaching reading and get the reading scores up and then we can worry about content.” And let’s be honest, even many teachers and educators who are opposed to testing-based accountability believe this. I encounter this all the time, as a teacher in both inner city and high-performing suburban districts, as a parent in my children’s high-performing district, and in my interactions with readers as an education blogger and writer.

I encountered this attitude, that language proficiency is a prerequisite to learning content frequently as an ESOL teacher. People insisted that English Language Learners should master English first before learning content. However, a very effective way to teach the English language is through the “sheltered content” model, where the content is a vehicle to teach the language. Of course, both English Language Learners and struggling readers need intensive and explicit language and reading instruction, but not beyond its utility and not without pairing it with content.

In the vast majority of cases, the “belief” that students have to learn to read before they can learn content is not a result of dysfunction, laziness, or poor intentions. Quite the contrary–this belief is based on the proven correlation between strong literacy skills and academic success and on the understandable urgency to get kids to master such skills. Unfortunately, it is also based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how people learn and of how such literacy skills develop. Some are celebrating NCLB’s increasing poor and minority students’ ability to read the tests they’re taking, but just because they can read the tests doesn’t mean they actually have a grasp of the content or that they know more. Being able to read the road signs is well and good, but it won’t get you very far if you don’t know how to drive or where to go.

Rachel Levy is a writer and a former (and likely future) ESOL and Social Studies teacher who lives in Ashland, Virginia, with her husband and three children. She blogs about education at All Things Education.


  1. Forgive me for saying so, but you’re being too kind to your principal. All these administrators, with their highfalutin credentials in “educational leadership,” and how often do they have the integrity to defend our profession? Instead they kowtow to bad policy and help perpetuate everything that’s wrong with the system.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — August 3, 2011 @ 6:36 pm

  2. As a highfalutin principal with a degree in educational leadership I resemble that remark! Since I started teaching before NCLB, I appreciate the focus it has provided on student achievement, however every year I see the downside embodied by some of the practices that produce temporary results (if that) and often produce students and teachers who are disengaged and passive. I’m fortunate to work in a district that encourages innovative approaches, but state and local measures must continue to rise, so you need to have a lot of confidence in your chosen course. To pursue the best practices in reading instruction and all things teaching, we do need courage and the thirst to become experts through careful study of what is working with our own students and by careful review of research.

    Thanks to the folks at Core Knowledge for their part in sharing some of those best practices.

    Comment by Dan Winters — August 3, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

  3. James, There’s certainly much more about the principal I could have added to the story. But a) the principal’s leadership role wasn’t meant to be central to this post, and b) it’s very complicated (with principals in general and in this particular case, it’s even more so.)

    I actually have a post in the works on the role of leadership on my own blog as part of my “Teacher, I Mean Teaching Quality” series, so stay tuned for that.

    What I’ll say for now is that the last thing I’d want to see is an escalation or expansion of the blame game. Being a principal is a very tough and solitary job. In DCPS, at least, they really have no job security and are under enormous pressure. I worked there under Arlene Ackerman who was known to treat her principals horribly. The superintendents in between I think were a bit better, but Michelle Rhee fired an awful lot of principals (including ones she brought in) and from what I’ve heard often hired them based on their willingness to make simplistic and empty ideological pledges, rather than based on any nuanced understanding of teaching and learning, or management skills, or on the practices they employed.

    Dan Winter says, “we do need courage and the thirst to become experts through careful study of what is working with our own students and by careful review of research.” I agree, but I would add that principals also need support and freedom to do exactly that; in the current climate I’d bet that many of them aren’t getting that support or trust any more than teachers are.

    Comment by Rachel Levy — August 4, 2011 @ 8:49 am

  4. Thank you for this piece, Rachel. You make important points and illustrate them well.

    How does one break through the nonsense in such situations?

    Small-group discussions are not the way to do it. I bet that if you raised your concerns before the entire faculty, you’d find more supporters. They might not speak out in faculty meetings, but they’d be approaching you in the hallways.

    Some of the nonsense is particular to reading tests. Math tests aren’t quite as much of a mess, because you’re supposed to teach math in math class, and the tests are supposed to correspond with what you have taught. It’s a different matter with reading.

    I would be all for literature and grammar tests, as well as history tests. Reading tests? No. But if there’s no way to get rid of them in the short term, teachers and administrators must persist in reminding others that this is not “content”–and that “content” will go a lot farther in boosting students’ reading.

    I put “content” in quotes because the term gets misused a lot. Just about anything can be “content.” What schools should offer is well-chosen, well-structured subject matter, with room for additional topics and a degree of spontaneity.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 4, 2011 @ 10:37 am

  5. It’s not even like there’s a LACK of content-rich material available at lower reading levels. When I turn my daughter loose in the public library (after exhorting her to avoid the I can read books because they are pretty light on interesting stuff), she comes back with well-written, interesting non-fiction and picture books that include folktales, history, biography and science. Most of these are written at about a third grade level, but some are harder, and the more she reads and learns, the easier it gets for her.

    I’d actually recommend using PBs with older reluctant readers as well– their language is often much richer than the plodding ‘aimed at reports’ nonfiction, and they really give a feel for the time periods they cover. A good teacher would want to supplement with a brief overview of the era and a timeline, but the picture books would teach a lot of history AND help students become better readers…..

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — August 4, 2011 @ 11:10 am

  6. Diana, The quiet hallway conversations definitely happened and I’m sure they happen for lots of educators. The problem is publicly, there’s politics and then there can also be ideology, too.

    Though I know very little about math instruction and the math tests, I do have the sense that what happens around them is quite different than what happens around the reading tests. There is such a thing, for example, as “math facts.” That being said, there are cases where the science teachers are pressured to get the math scores up, especially where there’s no science standardized test. I know that happened in the school that I describe above. Your point about using “subject matter” versus “content” is well-taken. I’ll remember that for next time.

    Deidre, I love the “PB” books–great recommendation.

    Comment by Rachel Levy — August 4, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

  7. Rachel, the remark about “content” wasn’t directed at you specifically. As an ESL teacher, I was often told to incorporate “content” (as a “vehicle for the language,” or sometimes–eek–as a “vehicle for the strategy”)–but “content” could be just about anything.

    I enjoyed the freedom and flexibility but would have been happier with a first-rate curriculum (not a mediocre one)–a curriculum that included literature, grammar, vocabulary, Latin and Greek roots, etc.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 4, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

  8. @Ms. Levy and Mr. Winters:

    I apologize for the principal-bashing. I know it wasn’t Ms. Levy’s point. But I do believe “educational leadership” is one of the elephants in the room, and Ms. Levy’s anecdote illustrates this. Assuming they didn’t leave the classroom for the extra money, then most of these folks must have sought the challenge of administration because they considered themselves “risk-takers” and persons of unusually high integrity. As such a person—and given that she had evidence of effectiveness from your own students as well as you yourself—your principal should have bitten the bullet, accepted the backlash from her own superiors, and supported you in doing what you thought was best. Instead she wasted your time and your students’ learning opportunities to protect herself.

    I use “educational leadership” in quotation marks because it is also an ideology and the focus of most administrator-training programs, as Mr. Winters indicates. That ideology runs counter to much of what this blog advocates. It wasn’t NCLB that reduced reading to a list of discrete, content-neutral skills, after all; progressive educators were all about that decades beforehand. Rather than vilify your principal, I would prefer to think she actually did do what her extensive “leadership” indoctrination, er, training, led her to believe was right. But that, in turn, raises a tantalizing question (at least for me): if most “educational leadership” really comes down to ideology, then why aren’t teachers the highest authorities in education?

    I count some administrators among my own friends and family. I know what they’re up against, know that they often face more personal, daily on-the-job abuse than most teachers. But I still find it frustrating and deeply ironic that I have to do most of my work despite what my educational leaders say (and I mean the national leadership as well as local), not because of it. So much of what they call “best practice” turns out to be mere ideological preference. I know so because I regularly turn to non-canonical sources like this blog for information but the latest fads, er “best practices.” What I have learned makes me question why we have educational leaders at all, apart from making sure the bells ring, the buses run on time, and Johnny doesn’t pull a third false fire-alarm this week.

    At any rate, thank you both for tolerating my remarks. I look forward to reading Ms. Levy’s series on leadership.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — August 4, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

  9. That was “information ABOUT the latest fads” in the third paragraph. Perhaps it would help if I bothered to proofread.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — August 4, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

  10. Either way, Diana, that “content” can be anything is a great point & a good reminder :)

    Mr. O’Keefe: Really insightful comment. I think what you say about ideology getting in the way and doing your work despite what your educational leaders say sadly describes what goes on in some schools, particularly those under the gun. (And I should proofread my comments, too. . . )

    Comment by Rachel Levy — August 4, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

  11. Rachel– if you’re really interested in using PBs to teach high school history, I’d suggest checking out some of the homeschool sites– there are a lot of units floating around out there, all with extensive lists of related books at a variety of reading levels. You’d have to hit the library to figure out what would work best with your students, but it’s a good starting point.

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — August 5, 2011 @ 8:54 am

  12. Somebody please tell me what a “PB” is! Thanks

    Comment by Geena — August 5, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

  13. It is not just testing that is killing content teaching there is lot of other skills based learning theories that are also problematic. We just left a school doing IB because the principal insisted that learning about the American Revolution was parochial. Instead they spent days on the Arab Spring. Numerous posters above asked why CK was not adopted and the honest to god reason is that people are afraid to say what knowledge is because the culture wars are still alive. Some maybe a plurality of teachers have internalized the lesson that their goal is to make their kids feel better about themeselves. Kids just leave schools clueless, but they don’t come back and ask why don’t Iknow greek myths because they don’t know to ask the question. That is what is scary.

    Comment by Charlotte Osborn — August 5, 2011 @ 7:36 pm

  14. Geena– an abbreviation for “Picture Book.” Think “Oxcart Man” as a way to teach colonial economics, or the D’Aulaire series of biographies as an intro to historical figures.

    My daughter has also picked up some really amazing ones about slavery, the civil war, the westward expansion…. you name it…

    Verla Kay has a great series of American History Picture Book poems. Easy to read but Chock-full of historical details and facts, AND her illustrators all carefully research the time periods so that the visual depictions are accurate as well.

    If you want to create a list for a unit in your class, I’d suggest talking to the children’s librarians at your local public library– they can help you find some good ones. Make sure the pictures are as good as the prose– both elements have to work together in a picture book.

    If the kids in your class get their reading levels up enough, there’s also a lot of great historical fiction— people who write juvenile historicals pay excrucuiating attention to detail, and they’re also a great way to supplement history class at late-elementary school reading levels.

    Oh! almost forgot—most of them are still out of print, but if you can stock your classroom library with the old Landmark books— they write history like it’s an adventure novel, and they’re at a 4-5 grade reading level, so perfect for struggling HS students!

    One problem for struggling readers is that if a text is dry AND difficult, there’s no way they’ll continue– but something that’s just the right amount of challenge and is exciting or funny or beautiful is a great way to draw them in!

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — August 5, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

  15. I read several different blogs that discuss education issues. I’ve come across several references to a book written by a 6th grade teacher titled “The Book Whisperer.” The main thesis of the book (from what I could gather) is that kids should be allowed to read pretty much whatever they want to; this will stimulate a long term love for reading.

    I went to Amazon.com and read many readers’ reviews. I sensed that all the reviews were from teachers who already agreed with the author’s ideas and liked seeing their already held opinions confirmed in print.

    I don’t know enough to have an informed opinion about this book or the author’s philosophy. Is this book worth reading? Is the author’s approach toward reading compatible with what Core Knowledge adherents believe about what kids shoud be reading?

    Comment by John Webster — August 6, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

  16. John-

    I have read Book Whisper, while I am not a teacher, as a parent it was an eye-opening way to look at and think about how novels are taught in classes. She advocates choice but within context- for example she has a unit on World War II where the kids do quick reviews of a number of books and then pick a perspective that they want to take. Then they present the books. She also believes that the skill of reading comes from doing reading so you need to give time and voluminous choice for kids to find their book mate if you will. She does advocate against class novels and even large group novels because she thinks that too much teaching can kill the joy of reading a great book. A similar book written more to address these issues at the High School level is Readicide. I think both of them would not say they represent core knowledge type programs but do believe in a greater breath of options in reading. I would read just because it is so different from how most classrooms are teaching today.

    I love kids lit personally and can tell you that I know more

    Comment by Charlotte Osborn — August 6, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

  17. [...] D.C. school — pre-Rhee — told social studies teachers to spend one-fifth of class time teaching the reading test, Levy writes on Core Knowledge [...]

    Pingback by Attack of the reading tests — Joanne Jacobs — August 9, 2011 @ 9:44 am

  18. John- About reading choice, I like what Charlotte describes, but I am not ready to give up on the class novel/book. I think there needs to be some balance between teacher choice and student choice. Again, this is something I plan to write more about on my own blog–I am working on a post on “progressive” education.

    About the “PB” books, I do want to add that a) I know about them mostly because my own children love them and b) if you’re considering the climate I described in the post, which is not so uncommon especially in higher-poverty and lower-performing schools, you have to keep in mind that with test-based pressure and acute standardization, just as there can be very little freedom from scripted or mandated lessons, there can be very little freedom, or money for that matter, for choosing one’s own materials and books.

    Comment by Rachel Levy — August 9, 2011 @ 11:02 am

  19. Rachel– Try getting the PBs from the public library and making them “classroom only” books to minimize theft/loss risks. That’s what our local teachers do to save money. Also, when the library has a booksale, a lot of great PBs go on sale for very little money (And sometimes, if you wait, the leftovers are free!!) The library weeds a lot of classics just because newer editions have come out or the book is getting worn (but still good enough for HS students, just too rickety for the pre-K crowd.) Also, if you let the local librarians know what you’re looking for, they will sometimes give teachers first dibs on the weeded books– they want to help you and they’re usually big literacy advocates!

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — August 9, 2011 @ 11:53 am

  20. Racehel-

    I can’t say I summarized the Book Whisper or Readicide perferectly. I would read them if you are going to write about the class novel as an interesting counterpoint but they have a lot more substantial point of view than I articulated above. They are both available in public libraries and not too dense of reads.

    One issue in using PB is that they are hard to locate within public libraries unless you have extensive help of a librarian or very good knowledge of the books. What I have seen in DC is that the professional development outreach within DCPS does not support this knowledge and many teachers do not have the tech savy or possibly the incliantion to connect to other sources such as twitter feeds, facebook reading groups or goodreads groups. In my daughter’s school not a single teacher (26 of them, not even the librarian) used any of these resources.

    Comment by Charlotte Osborn — August 9, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

  21. Charlotte– a bit of googling will actually help you come up with fairly good lists. I’ve gotten good results by using the term “Unit study” with keywords from the historical time period I want.

    And if you call your local children’s department and ask, they probably have a list handy already–many departments keep bibliographies on file for a variety of popular topics. And, frankly, you don’t need a “close relationship” with the public librarian– they’re all people who WANT to connect the public with books, and they LOVE the book list sort of questions….. Also, the “core knowledge” type books often have good lists, and if you don’t mind the Catholic bias or can work around it, Emmanuel Books Catalogue has great lists of historical PBs and fiction–most are perfectly just classic works suited for any classroom, just skip the “lives of the saints” ones!

    Comment by Deirdre Mundy — August 9, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

  22. […] then assessing what the students have learned counts as enjoyable. Figuring out how to teach the standardized reading test to my world history students and doing a technocratic version of reading tea leaves, i.e., charting who got the “main […]

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