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: