Important, but frustrating piece in the Washington Post this morning about the difficulty of sustaining test-score growth in underperforming schools after dramatic one-time boosts. “Studies across the country show that many low-performing schools falter after big one-year gains in test scores. Of the seven D.C. public schools that increased proficiency rates by 20 percentage points or more in both reading and math in 2008,” Bill Turque reports, only showed growth in 2009. “Most of the schools that surged 20 points or more in a single category last year also had difficulty building on the increase this year.”
The piece looks at any number of reasons–from turnover to cheating–why scores might spike in a given year and then plateau or decline. But if the piece is any indication, DC schools are overlooking the obvious: a key to long-term growth in reading scores is the steady buildup of background knowledge. Without knowing anything about the particular schools discussed in the Post piece, I’d bet real money that we’re talking about mediocre schools that got religion (or were forced to get religion) about testing and focused on it. Hard. But no one should be surprised to see one-time gains.
“Given the relationship between academic background knowledge and academic achievement, one can make the case that it should be at the top of any list of interventions intended to enhance student achievement,” wrote Robert Marzano in his 2006 book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. ”If not addressed by schools, academic background knowledge can create great advantages for some students and great disadvantages for others.”
E.D. Hirsch has obviously spent much of his life banging on this same drum, pointing over and over that reading tests are essentially tests of background knowledge. If DC school leaders understand this, the Post piece doesn’t say.
Test prep and simplistic reading strategy instruction that focus on trivial stories–students learn to predict, to summarize, to infer — does nearly nothing to add to a child’s store of knowledge, making an such a one-time boost nearly inevitable. An absence of background knowledge is the difference-maker and left unattended it eventually shows up in the test scores.
At a recent Aspen Institute panel discussion with Hirsch, Randi Weingarten observed that the reason we’re not seeing more of this is because “what works is boring.” Building background knowledge is a slow, steady process. Boring as hell. And absolutely effective.