‘Reading ability is very topic dependent’

by Grace

E.D. Hirsch explains why “reading scores on standardized tests flatten out in 12th grade”.

… “Reading ability is very topic dependent.”  Given two passages of equal difficulty in syntax and vocabulary, the same reader will comprehend one better than the other if the reader knows something about the subject matter of the one and little about that of the other.  The idea of a general reading ability that functions independently of what is read is “a misleading abstraction,” Hirsch says.  If a reading test has ten passages with 8-10 questions on each, the same student will perform variably from one to the next depending on background knowledge.  It’s an arbitrary system.  If, by chance, you did volunteer clean-up work one summer and one of the passages concerns how cities and towns dispose of their trash, you will fly through it.  A passage on a sport you never played, though, will slow you down, even though passage difficulty is the same.

Here is the explanation for divergent trends among 4th– and 12th-graders.  Passages for older students are more knowledge-intensive than those for younger students.

Schools changed from a “knowledge intensive” curriculum to a “test-prep” curriculum.

… A cumulative, knowledge-oriented curriculum will, over time, produce higher verbal abilities than a test-prep curriculum.  Over 13 years of knowledge-intensive schooling, students, including disadvantaged ones, can learn quite a lot about a lot of topics, greatly increasing their ability to make high scores on a reading test, and making them ready for college or a career.

Will Common Core Standards make a difference?

The solution is simple, yet far-reaching.  We need the reading curriculum to be more knowledge-aimed and less skill-based.  Hirsch: “A cumulative knowledge-oriented curriculum will, over time, produce higher verbal abilities than a test-prep curriculum.”  That means more set content and common readings in English, history, and civics, a sharper determination of “cultural literacy” (to use the title that made Hirsch famous), a narrower and more coherent curriculum.

Botched implementation?

The biggest question seems to be how well CCS will be implemented.  Among the many problematic issues surrounding CCS so far, there seems to be general agreement of a “botched” implementation.


Mark Bauerlein, “The Test Score Solution”, Minding the Campus, October 15, 2013.

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