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Why reading test scores flatten out in 12th grade

Why do reading scores on standardized tests flatten out in 12th grade? Here’s a post that explains it by E.D. Hirsch, founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several acclaimed books on education issues, including the best-seller “Cultural Literacy.” 

By E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

The strong protests against constant testing are a reaction mainly against the mindless test-prep associated with reading tests, and the resulting neglect of substantive education. Math tests, which are based on an actual curriculum, aren’t the main issue.  Prepping for them usually helps improve math proficiency.  But prepping for reading tests has had only a short-term effect, and hasn’t helped reading ability in the long run.

If you look at recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress,which is sometimes referred to as the “nation’s report card,” you will see that there’s a gentle boost in reading scores for grades 4 and 8, but not for 17 year olds. That’s the age when verbal ability counts for ultimate life chance — “career and college readiness,” as it’s currently put.  The reading proficiency of high school seniors has not budged since the great verbal decline of the 1970s, which was well documented by drops in scores on the SAT, ACT, and Iowa Tests of Educational Development.

So, why haven’t the short-term early boosts in grades 4 and 8 translated into better verbal scores in grade 12?   Reading tests in later grades are more knowledge-intensive than the tests in the early grades.   Emphasis on phonics (which has improved early reading) plus test-prep aren’t enough to do well on these later tests, which require broad knowledge and vocabulary.   Scholars of the subject (including the late great reading researcher Jeanne Chall) showed that 12th-grade scores declined in the 1970s and stayed flat, because of a narrowing of the school curriculum.

The time-consuming test prep with endless exercises on “finding the main idea” and “questioning the author,” exercises that are supposed to help improve verbal abilities, have become the chief cause of today’s curriculum narrowing.  Paradoxically then, emphasis on reading and reading tests have helped to cause low reading scores among school leavers.  The underlying reasons for this paradox are not widely understood among test makers and other specialists:  Prepping for reading tests has had a negative effect on the curriculum, because the tests themselves, not to mention the strategy exercises to prepare for them, are based on an incorrect understanding of reading ability.

They assume that each student possesses a quantifiable level of general reading ability.   But this “general reading level” is a misleading abstraction. Reading ability is very topic dependent.  How well students perform on a reading test is highly dependent on their knowledge of the topics of the test passages.  Yet the topics on our current reading tests don’t have anything to do with the topics studied in school.   How could they, when the school topics studied vary widely from class to class, under the misapprehension that any topic will foster general reading skill?

Of course, the assumption that reading is a general skill is inherently necessary among test makers in order to make tests that claim to quantify a student’s general level of reading ability. But since reading ability is topic dependent, and since tests typically contain just 10 passages, it’s not surprising that even the most highly validated reading tests are off, relative to each other, by at least 20 per cent. The variation in performance for an individual student will often be much higher.

Worse, there’s no short-term way of preparing for such a “general” reading test other than by doing topic-indifferent skill-exercises.   Hence test prep in the schools is currently very short-term in its orientation.  It involves teaching students how to scope out the meaning of a test passage, even when they know little about the topic.  This kind of unproductive and boring test-prep, though it gives a boost to scores in early grades, ceases to have an effect — even in those grades — after just six or seven skill-exercises in scoping out right answers on passages one doesn’t quite understand.

That’s why reading scores were higher when schooling was more knowledge intensive.  A cumulative, knowledge-oriented curriculum will, over time, produce higher verbal abilities than a test-prep curriculum.  Over 13 years of knowledge-intensive schooling, students, including disadvantaged ones, can learn quite a lot about a lot of topics, greatly increasing their ability to make high scores on a reading test, and making them ready for college or a career.

One big step towards this end recommends itself:   If the topics of the test were known in advance to be correlated with the topics of a curriculum, then test prep would become knowledge prep, and effect real improvements in students’ verbal abilities.  Until such a time arrives, reading tests and the frantic prepping for them over for more than five or six lessons per year will remain counter-productive – as the test-protesters implicitly understand.