Imagine you are a high school student taking a U.S. history class. You spend the year studying the American Revolution, Civil War, and Great Depression. You show up for the final exam feeling confident. Then you thumb through the test and realize something’s odd: all the questions are about European history.
Unfair, right? The test violates the unwritten contract between test-maker and test-taker: students should be tested on what they have studied. Now let’s add a twist: while you struggle and sweat, some of your neighbors are racing through the test. Perhaps one classmate has visited Europe with family and has soaked up relevant knowledge from museums and books.
This situation is inequitable.
Some students have an advantage, while others flounder, in a subject that everyone studied together. Unearned advantage worsens the unfairness of being tested on material that wasn’t taught in class. Yet, this is essentially what happens at the end of the year in most English/language arts (ELA) classrooms.
State reading comprehension tests nationwide generally feature passages on topics students have not studied in class. Teachers and students have no idea what the passages will be about.
Reading tests on unfamiliar passages are a problem because reading comprehension depends, among other things, on background knowledge. If you know something about a topic, you’re more likely to comprehend a related book or article. When students lack the background knowledge to decipher the vocabulary and basic concepts of reading material or to form inferences to fill in the gaps of what the text leaves unsaid, they will struggle. Students who are lucky enough to have sufficient knowledge about the topics tend to do better.
Why are reading comprehension tests designed this way?
Unlike in other subject areas, English/language arts standards usually do not dictate what books students should read or what topics they should study. Because states do not mandate a specific curriculum, districts adopt a vast array of different books and other reading materials. This means state departments of education cannot predict what knowledge students might bring to a test, so they choose a variety of topics for reading assessment passages. Their choices are essentially random and have no connection to the instruction students receive.
The result: students who benefit from knowledge-building opportunities outside of school—a home library, trips to museums, travel—have an advantage over students who rely on school to build the knowledge necessary for state reading comprehension tests.
Fortunately, Louisiana is working to solve this issue by creating better tests that measure student learning more fairly.
In 2018, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) won approval from the U.S. Department of Education to pilot innovative literacy assessments aligned to classroom instruction. These tests are given three times a year and feature new questions about familiar texts students have studied in class and new passages on topics related to what students have read. These tests reflect the content students encountered in the classroom all year, allowing students to draw on their knowledge to succeed.
For this approach to work, assessments must clearly tie to curricula. The LDOE is developing innovative assessments linked to two widely-used curricula: the Louisiana Guidebooks, developed by the LDOE, and Wit & Wisdom, a K-8 English language arts curriculum. My organization, which publishes Wit & Wisdom, partners with Louisiana and assessment specialists at NWEA to develop test content, starting this past year with fifth grade.
Preliminary data analysis indicates these new tests can help narrow the achievement gap. Observations show that students seem to prefer the innovative assessment to traditional assessments: they love knowing the topic and some of the texts in advance. We also see a shift in mindset among teachers away from test prep towards a deeper focus on instruction.
I hope Louisiana’s testing model spurs innovation in other states.
If we can move to a testing model that aligns coherently with instruction, we’ll be taking an important step toward giving all students a chance to successfully show what they know.
Lior Klirs is a former high school English teacher. He is currently the Director of Assessment for the Humanities Team at Great Minds.