States don’t measure what kids actually know. That needs to change

While Washington investigates Facebook data and Russian bots, the best shield most Americans have to fight off propaganda is our capacity to make sense of what we read. A literate citizenry is a matter of national defense. And an essential step to educating a literate citizenry is changing the reading tests in public schools across our country. The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, offers an opportunity to make this happen.

Reading tests have been required by federal law for nearly 25 years. With tests came accountability for teaching basic skills. If a child couldn’t read, schools would know it and could intervene. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the share of American fourth-graders reading proficiently increased by 7 percentage points over the past quarter-century. Proficiency among African-American fourth-graders increased by 10 percentage points, and Latino students gained 9 points.

{mosads}But older students have not demonstrated equivalent progress. Eighth grade reading levels on the NAEP have been at a standstill for 25 years. The Program for International Student Assessment, a global test of reading skills among 15-year-olds, shows literacy on the decline in America.


Adults fare no better. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development finds that one in six Americans reads at a low level, more than three times the rate in Japan.

As with children, a literate adult can read individual words and can connect them into sentences. But literate adults also have the background knowledge necessary to make sense of the words they encounter. When we read that a player rounded the bases, for example, we know that means more than just running around a baseball field — someone hit a home run. Or when we read there was a meeting at 10 Downing St., we know it wasn’t just tea time in London — something important happened in Great Britain at the home of the prime minister. We comprehend what we read because we have prior knowledge of the subject.

Imagine, then, taking a reading test and encountering a passage on the Cuban Missile Crisis without knowing much about the Cold War or President Kennedy. Or, try it yourself by reading an academic study on a subject you know nothing about. You may be able to decipher the words, but making sense of the text will be tedious. And good luck with a test of how well you comprehended and retained the knowledge.

On today’s reading tests, students read articles and stories they’ve not encountered before on topics they don’t necessarily know anything about. This may explain why older students struggle more on these tests; there is simply more that older students have to know to be sure they will comprehend an article written for an older audience.

The trouble is that by not requiring knowledge of any specific book or facts, reading tests have contributed to the false impression that reading is mainly about having skills such as being able to summarize, and not about background knowledge. Walk into many English classrooms today and you will see students capably identifying an article’s main idea. But you’re less likely to find students learning the historical context for a novel or discussing the novel’s broader meaning. By not requiring knowledge, tests create no incentive for particular knowledge to be taught.

This is not fair to adolescents, who need knowledge to become effective adult readers. It’s particularly not fair to students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, whose summer breaks rarely involve trips abroad or afternoons at museums, and who are thus at a disadvantage on any test that, whether it’s acknowledged or not, measures background knowledge. And it’s not good policy for a nation struggling with the influence of falsified news reports over its citizenry.

Yesterday, Louisiana submitted a proposal to the federal Department of Education to develop an Innovative Assessment Pilot, a new provision under ESSA. Rather than administering separate social studies and English tests at the end of the year, Louisiana schools participating in the pilot will teach short social studies and English curriculum units in tandem over the course of the year, pausing briefly after each unit to assess students’ reading, writing and content knowledge. Students, teachers and parents will know the knowledge and books covered on the tests well in advance. Knowledge of the world and of specific books will be measured as a co-equal to students’ literacy skills. And teachers would have good reason to focus on the hard and inspiring lessons of history and books.

Reading tests have provided transparency and accountability in the public education system. But they also influence what is taught to our children. Knowledge being essential to a literate nation, it’s time to put knowledge on the test.

John C. White is Louisiana state superintendent of education. In 2012, he launched Louisiana Believes, the state’s plan to ensure every child is on track to college or a professional career.

Tags Education Literacy National Assessment of Educational Progress Reading Standardized test Standards-based education

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