Daily question: Not how well you read but what you know?

E. D. Hirsch Jr., the author of The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children cites a 1988 experiment in a New York Times op-ed Reading Test Dummies:

Experimenters separated seventh- and eighth-grade students into two groups — strong and weak readers as measured by standard reading tests. The students in each group were subdivided according to their baseball knowledge. Then they were all given a reading test with passages about baseball. Low-level readers with high baseball knowledge significantly outperformed strong readers with little background knowledge. [emp.]

The experiment confirmed what language researchers have long maintained: the key to comprehension is familiarity with the relevant subject. For a student with a basic ability to decode print, a reading-comprehension test is not chiefly a test of formal techniques but a test of background knowledge.

I’m not entirely convinced of his remedy of ‘standardizing’ curricula but, testing being a design problem, the finding above should give us a pause.

Should students be tested only on subjects they are familiar with? Would this punish those students who are exposed to a wider variety of subjects? At what level should tests be “customized”: national, regional, state, city, district, school, student? What’s the value of comprehending texts on un-familiar subjects? Should under-privileged students be graded on a different curve? If so, at what point K-12 should this curve be abandoned? Would such differentiation remove incentives to expand subject matter variety?

Is “reading comprehension” ultimately testable then?

5 thoughts on “Daily question: Not how well you read but what you know?

  1. Steven: “culturally biased”

    Certainly. Texts predicated on experiences with, say, “ski resorts” or “ocean liner cruises” might be problematic for some kids. Of course, the curious thing is that the other half is almost never tested on, say, urban survival or hip-hop communication skills.

  2. This perhaps went to help reinforce the validity of studies which held that once-popular IQ tests were culturally biased against certain ethnic groups. For example, how would a black child be expected to match “cup” with “saucer” on an intelligence test when this was a combination rarely seen in lower-income African-American homes? Would this not qualify as the same sort of “background information” noted in the reading study?

  3. What’s the value of comprehending texts on an unfamiliar subject?

    The fact that then you can learn about said subject, which is useful for everything from reading safety instructions to doing complex research projects? Ability to learn new things without a lot of help is critical to success already and will only get more important.

    This finding reinforces the importance of writing about technical subjects in plain English as much as possible (providing definitions and glossaries as needed) instead of in academese or business-speak.

  4. In today’s information based economy, children and adults are exposed to and often required to become quite knowledgeable in subjects they have little prior exposure to and often in areas they don’t have a personal interest in. School should pattern life. Children should be exposed to a variety of subjects and tested in how well they are able to assimilate this new information and use it to create new things.

  5. Kontra,

    School was never able to kill my love of literature, but they tried very hard. As a lover of hard science fiction and fantasy there was exactly one book, out of 24 we were forced to read, I found interesting enough to study hard for. But there were other books I never would have considered reading that I really enjoyed, including a classic of American literature “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I think every student who was not forced to read a hard science fiction or fantasy book was deprived of the potential joy of reading something different.

    More to your final question I can’t see in this day and age why testing can’t be done across enough subject areas simultaneously that there is something of interest to every student. Especially when the testing is produced for a large number of students.

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