Happy 85th Birthday E. D. Hirsch, Part 4: Passing the Test

by Guest Blogger
March 22nd, 2013

So far this week E. D. Hirsch has taught us that higher-order thinking depends on knowledge, that highly mobile students suffer acutely from our national refusal to establish a core of common content, and that there is an identifiable body of specific knowledge that facilitates communication. Now, on Hirsch’s birthday, we examine his game-changing policy prescription: curriculum-based reading tests.

Turning to pages 153 – 162 of Hirsch’s most recent book, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools, we learn “How to Ace a Reading Test.”*

Reading tests are attacked for cultural bias and other faults, but such complaints are unfounded. The tests are fast and accurate indexes of real-world reading ability. They correlate extremely well with one another and with actual capacity to learn and communicate. They consist, after all, of written passages, which students are to read and then answer questions on; that is, students are asked to exercise the very skill at issue…. The much more reasonable complaint is that an emphasis on testing has caused schools to devote too much time to drills and test preparation, with a consequent narrowing of the curriculum….

Yet the fault lies not with the tests but with the school administrators who have been persuaded that it is possible to drill for a reading test—on the mistaken assumption that reading is a skill like typing and that once you know the right techniques you can read any text addressed to a general audience. The bulk of time in early language-arts program today is spent practicing these abstract strategies on an incoherent array of uninformative fictions. The opportunity costs have been enormous. Schools are wasting hours upon hours practicing drills that are supposed to improve reading but that are actually depriving students of knowledge that could enhance their reading comprehension….

Here is the beginning of an actual passage from a New York State reading test for fourth grade:

There is a path that starts in Maine and ends in Georgia, 2,167 miles later. This path is called the Appalachian Trail. If you want, you can walk the whole way, although only some people who try to do this actually make it, because it is so far, and they get tired. The idea for the trail came from a man named Benton MacKaye. In 1921 he wrote an article about how people needed a nearby place where they could enjoy nature and take a break from work. He thought the Appalachian Mountains would be perfect for this.

The passage goes on for a while, and then come the questions. The first question, as usual, concerns the main idea:

This article is mostly about

1. how the Appalachian Trail came to exist.

2. when people can visit the Appalachian Trail.

3. who hikes the most on the Appalachian Trail.

4. why people work together on the Appalachian Trail.

Many educators see this question as probing the general skill of “finding the main idea.” It does not. Try to put yourself in the position of a disadvantaged fourth grader who knows nothing of hiking, does not know the difference between an Appalachian-type mountain and a Himalayan-type mountain, does not know where Maine and Georgia are, and does not grasp what it means to “enjoy nature.” Such a child, though much trained in comprehension strategies, might answer the question incorrectly. The student’s more advantaged counterpart, not innately smarter, just happens to be familiar with hiking in the Appalachians, has been to Maine and Georgia, and has had a lot of experience “enjoying nature.” The second student easily answers the various questions correctly. But not because he or she practiced comprehension strategies; this student has the background knowledge to comprehend what the passage is saying….

It has been shown decisively that subject-matter knowledge trumps formal skill in reading and that proficiency in one reading-comprehension task does not necessarily predict skill in another. Test makers implicitly acknowledge this by offering, in a typical reading test, as many as ten passages on varied topics. (If reading were a knowledge-independent skill, a single passage would suffice.)… Contrary to appearances and educators’ beliefs, these reading tests do not test comprehension strategies. There usually are questions like “What is the main idea of this passage?” but such a question probes ad hoc comprehension, not some general technique of finding the main idea. Reading comprehension is not a universal, repeatable skill like sounding out words or throwing a ball through a hoop. “Reading skill” is rather an overgeneralized abstraction that obscures what reading really is: an array of separate, content-constituted skills such as the ability to read about the Appalachian Mountains or the ability to read about the Civil War….

A reading test is inherently a knowledge test. Scoring well requires familiarity with the subjects of the test passages. Hence the tests are unfair to students who, through no fault of their own, have little general knowledge. Their homes have not provided it, and neither have the schools. This difference in knowledge, not any difference in ability, is the fundamental reason for the reading gap between white and minority students. We go to school for many years partly because it takes so long to build up the vast general knowledge and vocabulary we need to become mature readers.

Because this knowledge-gaining process is slow and cumulative, the type of general reading test now in use could be fair to all groups only above fifth or sixth grade, and only after good, coherent, content-based schooling in the previous grades. I therefore propose a policy change that would at one stroke raise reading scores and narrow the fairness gap. (As a side benefit, it would induce elementary schools to impart the general knowledge children need.) Let us institute curriculum-based reading tests in first, second, third, and fourth grades—that is to say, reading tests containing passages based on knowledge that children will have received directly from their schooling. In the early grades, when children are still gaining this knowledge slowly and in piecemeal fashion, it is impossible to give a fair test of any other sort….

We now have an answer to our question of how to enable all children to ace a reading test. We need to impart systematically—starting in the very earliest grades by reading aloud to students, then later in sequenced self-reading—the general knowledge that is taken for granted in writing addressed to a broad audience. If reading tests in early grades are based on a universe of pre-announced topics, general knowledge will assuredly be built up. By later grades, when the reading tests become the standard non-curriculum one, such as the NAEP tests, reading prowess will have risen dramatically.

Policy makers say they want to raise reading scores and narrow the fairness gap. But it seems doubtful that any state can now resist the anti-curriculum outcry that would result from actually putting curriculum-based testing into effect. Nonetheless, any state or district that courageously instituted knowledge- and curriculum-based early reading tests would see a very significant rise in students’ reading scores in later grades.

States would also see impressive results right away on the curriculum-based tests since the passages would be about content that all students had actually been taught. Just imagine: With curriculum-based tests, “test prep” would consist of studying literature, history, science, and the arts. Bringing that imaginary world to life relies on our leaders working together. So, this birthday retrospective ends with a call to the left and right, drawn from pages 186 – 187 of the Making of Americans.

One of the gravest disappointments I have felt in the twenty-fine years that I have been actively engaged in educational reform is the frustration of being warmly welcomed by conservatives but shunned by fellow liberals. The connection of the anti-curriculum movement with the Democratic Party is an accident of history, not a logical necessity. All the logic runs the other way. A dominant liberal aim is social justice, and a definite core curriculum in early grades is necessary to achieve it. Why should conservatives alone favor solid content while my fellow liberals buy into the rhetoric of the anti-curriculum theology that works against the liberal aims of community and equality? Practical improvement of our public education will require intellectual clarity and a depolarization of the issue. Left and right must get together on the principle of common content.


* For the endnotes, please refer to the book.


Do you have a birthday message for E. D. Hirsch or favorite quote from him? Please share it with all of us in the comments.


You may also be interested in other posts in this birthday retrospective:

Part 1: The Secret to Lifelong Learning

Part 2: Avoidable Injustice

Part 3: Breaking Free from the Siren Song



  1. I agree that familiarity with the content makes all the difference to comprehending a passage. However, there is such a thing as a general level of reading to be aimed for by a particular grade level. Perhaps the more immediate change that can be implemented is to write passages for testing children based around their life. For example, passages about friendships, outdoor play, school life, family life etc.
    I find that when testing writing a child is often given a prompt relevant to their life so that they have something to say, however, when testing reading such care is typically not taken.

    In the long run, when a standard national curriculum has been implemented across the grades, sure, your suggested method of test reading ability related to and within the context of the curriculum would make sense.

    Comment by Sujata Krishna — March 22, 2013 @ 9:03 am

  2. Having a wide berth of content knowledge is critical in supporting students’ ability to make connections when reading text that is not only new, but also on a reading level that challenges them. However, while content knowledge is critical, it is certainly not sufficient. I teach university preparatory English Language Arts at the highest high school level with a governmental reading comprehension exam worth 50% of a student’s final grade. The text excerpts used can be taken from anything written in the English language from any country or point in history at a grade 12 reading level, making it nearly impossible for K-12 content familiarity across subject areas to come close to address the possible prior knowledge students need to make successful connections without the tactics we drill and the meta-cognitive strategies students are taught to use to enhance their understanding of unfamiliar text. The only students who perform extremely well are those who read voraciously outside curricular instruction for their entire 13 years of public education. The informal education they receive in doing this reading makes the difference. Most recently, an exam focused three of its readings (of varied types of text) on early 19th century coal mining towns in coastal Canada prior to confederation, when the British mining companies had complete governmental control over those workers and the communities — they controlled the food and water distribution, the working conditions, as well as the policing. This was never covered in any content of the curriculum, so students could not understand an economic system where workers were paid in food supply tickets and boarding allowances rather than in wage, and where citizens were denied a right to own property, and were forced to live in company owned housing and be satisfied with company provided food and water. None of these details were evident in the text other than through subtle suggestion, and yet students were supposed to make connections and comparisons to other similar economic systems like Cuba or the USSR. Students must be well-read beyond the scope of classroom instruction and content area knowledge if they want to excel on such high stakes exams. Reading-at-home programs might assist students if teachers can find a way to work collaboratively with families and support them where needed.

    Comment by Conal — March 22, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

  3. My favorite example from the book of specific subject-matter knowledge being the key to language comprehension is quoted as follows from The Making of Americans, p.14:

    “A trio of medium-pacers – two of them, Irfan Pathan, made man of the match for his five wickets. But this duo perished either side of lunch – the latter a little unfortunate to be adjudged leg-before – and with Andrew Symonds, too, being shown the dreaded finger off an inside edge, the inevitable beckoned, bar the pyrotechnics of Michael Clarke and the ninth wicket. Clarke clinically cut and drove to 10 fours in a 134-ball 81, before he stepped out to Kumble to present an easy stumping to Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

    Say what?

    For those of us ignorant Americans who haven’t the foggiest, this is a brief passage on cricket, as referenced by Don Hirsch.

    Try answering the ten multiple choice questions on this puppy, even if you understand most of the words.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 22, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

  4. I agree with the fact that there is definetly a problem with the way we are assessing reading. We lose instructional time while we are busy teaching students test taking strategies and how to pass a test. We focus on reading skills and strategies instead of actually focusing on reading. Having students learn through reading, reading a variety of texts and expanding their knowledge and schema. With a student taking a reading test as they currently are it is such a gamble. It is the luck of the draw as to whether the test will have stories that contain content in which they have previous knoweldge and personal experience with. Reading is not a repeatable skill it is a seperate skill learned at different rates by each child. The test is basically testing the familiarity with content that a student might have, not how well they can read.

    Comment by Megan — March 22, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

  5. Happy Birthday, Dr. Hirsch. Thank you for all that you have done and are continuing to do for American children.

    As a pacifist, a progressive, a leftist, and a registered Democrat, I want to let you know that there are lots of people like myself who have begun to realize the how problematic public education has been in the United States and how crucial your work is. That our voices haven’t been heard sooner may be a factor of our having provided background knowledge to our children over the years without realizing the schools weren’t backing us up. Reading on the internet about other parents’ experiences, about their children’s struggles in education that reflect on our own encounters with such problems, has opened up the discussion. Your work is vitally important to the country, and your writing is a national breath of fresh air.

    Comment by Linda Wood — March 22, 2013 @ 10:20 pm

  6. Thank you Lisa for this very informative series of posts and congratulations to E.D. Hirsch for his considerable accomplishments. These posts summarize everything Core Knowledge represents.

    My enthusiasm is at an all-time high. I hope you can balance this reflective material with new posts about the future. What’s in the pipeline? Is there a plan to accelerate the spread of the Sequence? Is there a way to move Core Knowledge concepts to center stage?

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — March 23, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

  7. Linda,
    I feel the same way you do. It is so important that schools be providing authentic learning expereinces for our children and build their backgroudn knowledge and schema so that as parents when you are building it at home it is scaffolding. It is imperative to students’ learning that they can relate to what they are being taught and that it is taught in a way that will have some sort of leverage and longevity.

    Comment by Megan — March 24, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

  8. Hello, Dr. Hirsch,

    Before you published your first book, you delivered a paper to The National Conference on Adult Literacy on January 20, 1984, and you were debating about whether or not to pursue compiling the “core knowledge” literate Americans should know. I was in attendance and went up afterwards and begged you to please, by all means, do so as it was so desperately needed. As chair of the Literacy Committee of the National Advisory Council on Adult Education, I was in the process of writing the Council’s report on illiteracy in America that was published in 1986, and having taught English and served on a local school board, I knew first hand what a valuable contribution the compilation would make.

    Three years later, your book was published and you were invited to speak to Ohio superintendents in Willoughby, Ohio. By then, I was president of the State Board and invited to serve on a panel to react to your presentation. That you had had the audacity to include an appendix with a list of what literate Americans should know had, of course, driven the educational establishment slightly nuts. Well, when you walked into the dinner and spotted me, you came right over and said, “Oh, you’re the little lady who talked me into writing my book.” I understand that I share that honor with many others, but I am so proud to have had even a small part in your wonderful contribution to literacy and education in this country.

    Later, we were together at a small meeting in Texas and I got a friend of mine who was a guidance counselor in Crooksville, to set up the first Core Knowledge school in Ohio. My son’s best friend’s children attend a Core Knowledge school in Scottsdale and we are using your pre-school books with my granddaughter.

    I just read about the new third-grade materials that will be available this summer and what a wonderful addition they will make to the new push to have all children reading by third grade. And, in addition, they will be available free online!

    You are a true scholar, a real humanitarian and a wonderful American.

    Thank you and belated Happy Birthday and certainly, many returns.

    Pat Smith

    Comment by Pat Smith — March 25, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

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