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.