I’ve always been a little perplexed by the claims that teaching to the test is “narrowing” the curriculum and thereby not giving kids access to a liberal arts education. The fact is if a student cannot read, do math or perform at a minimal level in science, it is hard to believe that he or she will be able to access a liberal arts education.
And, in fact, Massachusetts is known nationwide for having the curriculum frameworks — the basic material from which the MCAS is drawn — that have the strongest academic content. Don’t ask me. See an op-ed in the WaPo entitled The Knowledge Connection from education guru E.D. Hirsch.
Language comprehension is a slow-growing plant. Even with a coherent curriculum, the buildup of knowledge and vocabulary is a gradual, multiyear process that occurs at an almost imperceptible rate. The results show up later.
Consider the eighth-grade NAEP results from Massachusetts, which are a stunning exception to the nationwide pattern of stagnation and decline. Since 1998, the state has improved significantly in the number of eighth-graders reading at the “proficient” or “advanced” levels: Massachusetts now has the largest percentage of students reading at that higher level, and it is No. 1 in average scores for the eighth grade. That is because Massachusetts decided in 1997 that students (and teachers) should learn certain explicit, substantive things about history, science and literature, and that students should be tested on such knowledge.
The sure road to adequate progress in reading is adequate progress in knowledge. Congress and the states should note that the best tests to “teach to” are subject-matter tests based on explicit content standards for each grade. Massachusetts’s results confirm that this is the best way to measure and to achieve real progress in reading. The revisers of No Child Left Behind, and all who are connected with our schools, need to be cognizant of — and do something about — the critical knowledge connection.