Natalie Wexler has done much (along with the likes of Jeanne Chall, Don Hirsch, Dan Willingham, Kate Walsh, and Robert Pondiscio) to establish the fact that there’s science behind the act of reading and the related proposition that real reading (not just “decoding”) is no isolated skill but, rather, a complicated process of making sense of what one reads on the page in the context of what one already knows.
Wexler’s important book, The Knowledge Gap, as described in her own words, “focuses on the relationship between our current largely content-free elementary curriculum and the so-called achievement gap. The book will take readers inside schools and classrooms, showing them what the skills-focused approach to literacy instruction looks like, explaining how and why it has become so entrenched, and charting possible routes to the knowledge-focused instruction that is our best hope of achieving educational and social equity.”
Bravo and huzzah. Everyone should read it, alongside such works as Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit and Willingham’s The Reading Mind.
This week, Wexler turned to what she sees as the strengths and weaknesses of my own new book, Assessing the Nation’s Report Card: Challenges and Choices for NAEP.
I’m mostly grateful. She spelled my name correctly and finds merit in the book: “Finn seems to know everyone and everything NAEP-related, and he makes the intricacies of the story surprisingly engaging.”
But she really, really doesn’t like the way that NAEP tests reading, and she really, really wishes I had made a similar criticism.
Her fundamental point isn’t limited to NAEP. It’s about the way America nearly always tests reading, whether at the local, state, or national level. (PISA does the same—even more so—with its claims to test “literacy” among fifteen-year-olds around the world.)
For years, Hirsch, Willingham, Pondiscio, and others have made essentially the same point. As Robert explained it in a fine Education Next essay in 2014, back when the Common Core State Standards were hot:
Students who score well on reading tests are those who have a lot of prior knowledge about a wide range of subjects. This is precisely why Common Core calls for (but cannot impose) a curriculum that builds knowledge coherently and sequentially within and across grades. That’s the wellspring of mature reading comprehension—not “skills” like making inferences and finding the main idea that do not transfer from one knowledge domain to another.
As a practical matter, standards don’t drive classroom practice. Tests do. The first—and perhaps only—litmus test for any accountability scheme is, “Does this encourage the classroom practices we seek?” In the case of annual reading tests, with high stakes for kids and teachers, the answer is clearly “no.” Nothing in reading tests—both as currently conceived or anticipated under Common Core—encourages schools or teachers to make urgently needed, long-term investments in coherent knowledge building from grade to grade that will drive language proficiency.
In other words, reading tests that are divorced from curriculum and student knowledge encourage teachers to approach reading as a collection of disconnected skills, rather than helping students to approach “the wellspring of mature reading comprehension.” And the higher the stakes attached to those test results, the more damage they do.
Unlike state and local tests, NAEP is low-stakes. Wexler understands that, but also notes (correctly) that it has an “indirect but substantial influence” over how reading is approached. That’s why last year’s protracted, painful effort by NAEP’s governing board to come up with a new “framework” for future reading assessments triggered much controversy.
Wexler points out that the self-same governing board convened an expert reading panel a few years back, including such luminaries as Willingham, Tim Shanahan, and Marilyn Adams—which, she writes, told it that, “comprehension depends more on background knowledge than abstract skill. But instead of focusing on subjects that could build the kind of knowledge kids need to read complex text—social studies, science, the arts—elementary schools have cut back on those subjects to focus more on comprehension ‘skills.’ The result is that children from better-educated families generally score higher on reading tests—and achieve academically—because they’re able to pick up academic knowledge at home.”
The way reading is generally tested, Wexler similarly argues, leads to teaching practices that do worst by disadvantaged kids and thereby widen achievement gaps.
She’s right. But a different problem arises—an insoluble one at this point in our history, I fear—when we get to Wexler’s proposed remedy for NAEP’s failings in this realm. As she has proposed elsewhere, Wexler would have NAEP “secure congressional permission to stop giving its biannual ‘reading’ tests and instead focus on subjects like history and geography.” That, she suggests, “could send a powerful signal about what’s actually important to reading comprehension.”
My book does suggest that NAEP shift from biannual testing of reading and math to a four-year cycle, which would (inter alia) create some budgetary slack to test “subjects like history and geography more often.” That would be a fine thing to do.
But as Wexler well knows, regardless of the frequency of the assessments (currently two years for grades four and eight), testing reading qua reading via NAEP is currently mandated by Congress as part of ESSA (and previously NCLB), and those results are used for multiple purposes, including a sort of “audit” of results reported on states’ own reading assessments. Moreover, the kind of reading test that Wexler (and Hirsch et al.) favors depends on a unified curriculum with prescribed content to be learned by all students, more or less the way the Advanced Placement program works.
Imagine—just try to picture—the firestorm that would greet anyone suggesting the sort of “national curriculum” that would have to precede Wexler’s kind of nationwide reading test. I’m not aware that any state has even managed such a thing for itself, though Louisiana is inching in that direction.
Yet without uniform content in what students have read and learned, there’s no practical way to have a standardized reading test that does justice to true reading comprehension.
Test-makers make a stab in this direction by supplying test-takers with extended reading passages that are supposed to contain within themselves the information that students need to possess in order to answer the comprehension questions. But it’s never that simple, for knowledge (and vocabulary) are cumulative things and there’s no way to supply all the background—and thus level the playing field—within a test passage.
Knowing that problem cannot be solved, understanding that Congress isn’t about to do away with the testing of reading, and recognizing that NAEP does have some value—“it provides valuable information about trends in student achievement and highlights disparities between demographic groups”—Wexler ends with a small, somewhat nebulous suggestion: “NAEP officials could at least explain what ‘reading’ tests are actually assessing rather than making vague comments about how we need more time on reading ‘skills.’”
Sure, it matters how we talk about what NAEP results do and do not show. Sure, we’re certainly given to overinterpreting and overthinking them en route to (in Stephen Sawchuk’s phrase) outright misNAEPery. Sure, it would be good if everyone who presents or interprets those results would start with a dozen cautions and limits. But c’mon, folks, we’re living in a world of soundbites, headlines, and tweets. Take the thermometer out of your mouth and you’re looking at your temperature. Take the cuff off your arm and you’re looking at your blood pressure. Take the eighth grade average reading score on NAEP and you’re looking at the reading prowess of the average U.S. eighth grader on the closest thing we have to a pressure cuff. It is what it is—which means, of course, it’s only the beginning of what you really want to know about how well kids are reading and why more of them are not reading better.
One more thing that Wexler surely knows but didn’t mention. Because NAEP is a decent tracker of trends over time in reading prowess and because it does that for states as well as nation, if any state pushed hard in the curricular and pedagogical direction that Wexler and her allies favor—i.e., a knowledge-rich, statewide curriculum from kindergarten onward that’s full of history, science, civics, and such—in due course we’d see a difference in that state’s NAEP reading score! Others might want to know what that state was doing differently. Then they might even try to do it themselves.
Thank you, NAEP.