To Teach Students to Read, Give Them Something Worth Reading

Every year, students across the United States take standardized tests such as the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) exam. Schools, like the one where I teach in Wisconsin, rely on these assessments to evaluate student achievement and to judge teacher performance. Some educators applaud tests like the MAP, a computer-adaptive assessment that adjusts the questions in real-time for each student. Too often, though, discussions about what standardized tests like MAP should measure overlook the more important question: What content is on the test?

This is particularly true when it comes to evaluating reading exams. The established perspective suggests that standardized tests should measure a student’s reading skills; the actual content is often considered irrelevant. In this framework, a student can demonstrate his ability to draw inferences or identify themes by analyzing a poem, op-ed, or even a tweet.

However, decades of research show that this is not the case. Reading fluency is not fundamentally a skill-based process; rather, learning to read has two steps. First, students learn the skill of reading by decoding sounds and familiarizing themselves with basic grammar. The second part – comprehension – is a far more complex process and one that depends on background knowledge.

Consider a seminal study in the Journal of Education Psychology that asked students to read a short text about baseball. Before students read the excerpt, researchers assessed their prior knowledge about the sport and whether they were strong or struggling readers. The findings are instructive. A student’s comprehension depended far more on their background knowledge of baseball than on their predetermined reading level.

This is why even a highly credentialed American academic might find a paragraph about cricket difficult to follow. Regardless of her reading level, she would find the text opaque if she weren’t familiar with words like yorker, wicket, or dolly, or if she had no knowledge of the rules of the game. Skills may be sufficient for understanding basic texts like “See Spot Run,” but true literacy depends on content knowledge.

For decades, standardized tests have missed this fundamental insight. When we focus too much on what students ought to be able to do, we forget to ask what they ought to know. We end up with tests that fail to assess true reading abilities.

What is tested, however, too often informs what is taught, which is why tests without substance often lead to education without meaning. Students are not only left unable to read – the results from the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 Wisconsin Student Assessment System are deeply worrisome, especially for certain underserved communities – but also forced to waste their time with lifeless passages, instead of being exposed to the great wisdom of science, history, philosophy, literature, and art that lie at the core of literacy. As Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia noted, “The mistaken idea that reading is a skill – learn to crack the code, practice comprehension strategies, and you can read anything – may be the single biggest factor holding back reading achievement in the country.”

The good news: innovators are working to set a better course.

Louisiana has piloted a standardized test that draws its content from the science, history, and literature taught in the state curriculum. As such, it levels the playing field, as all students have access to the background knowledge that the test requires. In addition, the Classic Learning Test (CLT) has become an increasingly popular alternative to college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT. It asks many of the same questions as the SAT and ACT, but in contrast to the inconsequential readings found in those exams, the CLT uses passages from historically significant texts.

While Louisiana’s test more accurately reflects the content in the classroom in an effort to produce fairer results, the CLT promises to transform classroom curricula for the better.

So long as assessments exist, teachers will “teach to the test.” By improving our exams, we can motivate educators to shift away from teaching test-taking strategies to engaging students with significant, meaningful texts. And we can help students understand that the point of learning to read isn’t just to gain a skill; it is to be able to read something worthwhile.