Thursday, March 23, 2023

Testing and the Love of Reading

There's a great piece in the Atlantic from author Katherine Marsh that looks to answer "why kids aren't falling in love with reading." 

It's not just the screens. And she notes that surveys pre-pandemic already showed reading for fun had already dropped off a cliff for 9 and 13 year olds. 

If you have taught in the last twenty years, or regularly reads here, you already know what's happening. As Marsh explains the loss of interest in story:

This disregard for story starts as early as elementary school. Take this requirement from the third-grade English-language-arts Common Core standard, used widely across the U.S.: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral language.” There is a fun, easy way to introduce this concept: reading Peggy Parish’s classic, Amelia Bedelia, in which the eponymous maid follows commands such as “Draw the drapes when the sun comes in” by drawing a picture of the curtains. But here’s how one educator experienced in writing Common Core–aligned curricula proposes this be taught: First, teachers introduce the concepts of nonliteral and figurative language. Then, kids read a single paragraph from Amelia Bedelia and answer written questions.

Yup. The rise of NCLB and Race to the Top and Common Core have cemented the practice of teaching students to read and respond to tiny little fragments of works rather than the whole thing.

You can argue (as some have, responding to this article on the tweeter machine) that no standards ever said, "Go out and never read an entire work of literature again." And that's fair-- Common Core didn't require this exactly. But it surely enabled it, in two crucial ways. 

For one, it added fuel to the high stakes Big Standardized Test craze. NCLB ramped up BS Tests across the nation, but those were sorted out state by state. The Core created the illusion that we could have BS Tests aligned to national-ish standards and so it was okay to attach higher and higher stakes to test results. But that meant lots and lots of test prep materials, conveniently published under the "Common Core aligned" claim. And since the BS Tests tested with short clips from reading, the most effective test prep would have to mirror that approach. Teachers were pitched coaching book after coaching book with selections just a few paragraphs long tied to multiple choice questions. 

The Core also ramped up the idea of reading "skills," the idea that reading skills could somehow exist in a vacuum, somehow separated from actual content. And if you don't need any content knowledge to pack in with the reading, well, content knowledge can also mean the rest of the piece itself. David Coleman wanted us to stay within the four corners of the text, and the absurd extension of that idea is that we can stay within the four corners of the fifth and sixth paragraph of the entire work. 

"Skills" divorced from content gets us reading comprehension equivalent of DIBELS, the crazy pants "reading" assessment that tries to "test" the skill of decoding by having students decode words that aren't words--reading without actually reading. The literature version of that is reading comprehension without any larger work to comprehend. Answer these questions about one page out of Hamlet, as if one need not read the whole work to develop real comprehension. As if reading comprehension is a skill that can be tested in a vacuum. 

The end effect is to reduce "reading" to a performative task, with no real purpose except to gear students for the Big Standardized Test.

As Marsh points out, the enjoyment of reading, the pleasure of being on the receiving end of a story, a communication, a human mind and heart being transmitted through the printed page--none of that needs to be sacrificed in the service of developing reading skills. 

This is why high stakes testing remains my Education Enemy #1. It turns everything upside down by insisting that the purpose of education is to get students ready to score well on the Big Standardized Test, instead of getting them ready to live their lives, to become their best selves, to grasp what it means to be fully human in the world. Twenty years of high stakes testing has caused too much of education to lose the plot. The number of students who can't imagine any purpose for reading except to answer test questions is just one sad symptom.


  1. And another thing that has lead to not wanting to read longer fiction--I know this is going to get lots of feedback--graphic novels. When I first heard that A Wrinkle in Time was being published as a graphic novel I was saddened by the fact that children would never feel the power of that writing by reading a graphic novel version. Librarians are beginning to realize this error--they bought too many because they bought the argument that it would get reluctant boys to read. Sad.

    1. No, this isn’t it. Graphic novels have exploded partially BECAUSE of this, but everyone who was around in the 90s knew that Calvin and Hobbes, Garfield, magic eye, and the Guinness book of world records were the books a lot of kids read, and most of us also read regular text stories. This is something more than “other text options are available.”

  2. The finger (take your pick) of blame for this is pointed directly at David Coleman and his chief enabler Arne Duncan. Adoption of the Common Core standards in ELA (and math) were extorted by the USDOE using the failure of every single school in the country to comply with the clearly unconstitutional NCLB act requirement for 100% test score proficiency by 2014. With this leverage came the Common Coercion: Race to the Top money grab and the Duncan NCLB waiver program, each of which forced states to not only adopt the CCSS, but to link teacher evaluations to those test scores. This is despite the fact that 70% of teachers did not teach the TWO tested subjects at the mandated grade levels. It was this component of Common Coercion that completely disrupted the reasons for teaching and learning in ELA (and math). Furthermore, the two (very narrow) tested ELA skills: writing and reading were saddled with an almost complete focus on analysis, comparison, and endless requests to produce supporting evidence for what were mostly self-evident claims in written passages - and in comparative writing test items. Marsh hit this one out of the park, just surprised it took so long for someone to make this point so crystal clear. As Peter has pointed out so many times in the past, schools and individual teachers now wanted students to work for them, instead of the other way around. What kid would love reading when it was transformed into transactional activity mired in utter repetitiveness and endless boredom? It did the same to writing as well.

  3. Indeed. Add to that the utter disregard for the humanity of students when they are consistently required to participate in these "experiments" and their natural response is to feel absolutely no connection to the text or the act of reading. Not only is the student enduring an undesirable task, he or she is ultimately tolerating being forced to endure. That inevitably creates a detachment. Of course, there are countless other causes for waning interest in reading, but the (perhap) unintended consequences reading of samples is that one doesn't develop an appetite for a main course. Too many samples at Costco have ruined many an appetite for a real meal.

  4. Reading should be an immersive process that buildings and relates parts to the whole. Reading should provide context to time, events, policies and social norms. Students are denied deeper understanding by reading excerpts and responding through multiple choice question format.. Standardized testing is indeed the enemy of reading, writing and real learning.