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?