Louisiana’s New Approach to Reading Tests

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 06, 2018 2 min read
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Louisiana wants to overhaul tests to measure students’ reading skills to better reflect the curriculum that students actually encounter in class, rather than to use the random and often dull reading passages that populate the current exams.

The state is one of just two, plus Puerto Rico, to apply for the U.S. Department of Education’s innovative assessment pilot program. It would allow up to five districts in the winning states the opportunity to allow some districts to use innovative new tests to measure achievement, rather than the usual state standardized exam.

Louisiana’s plan is to base its reading tests on a collection of texts that students have actually read, discussed, and analyzed over the course of the school year.

So why does Louisiana think this is an improvement? The answer to this depends on knowing a bit about what current reading tests look like. Mostly, they measure specific skills, like finding an author’s point of view or the main idea of a paragraph. The main criticism of this approach has come from cognitive psychologists and scholars like E.D. Hirsch Jr., a longstanding proponent of content-rich curricula, who argue that to fully grasp these random reading passages, you actually need to have some background knowledge of the subject at hand.

If on the test you get a passage on blueberry cultivation, or how Nancy Drew was a role model for young women, or hiking in Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, for instance, but have never seen or tasted a blueberry, heard of a “roadster,” or know where Ireland is located, then you’re at a disadvantage, the thinking goes. (True confessions: All three topics showed up on my SAT exam once upon a time.)

And so in this way, they argue, the tests tend to be unfair to students from low-income backgrounds. Students who come from print-rich homes and have had more opportunities to build this knowledge are more likely to do well on the tests, they argue.

Louisiana officials are clearly drawing from this argument.

The current tests, officials in Louisiana say in their application, “do not always value the background knowledge students bring to them, including students’ deep understanding of books and texts they have studied previously. Instead, state tests preference reading and writing skills over the content that renders them rich and meaningful.” And that in turn tends to weaken instruction in the English classroom, they say.

Building Students’ Background Knowledge

In some ways, the proposal flows from the state’s curriculum work, for which it’s received a lot of attention. Among other things, teachers helped develop new curricula in the form of “guidebooks” in reading that couple literary, nonfiction, and social science texts all on a particular theme. In its proposal, it imagines testing students on several different collections of texts; districts could choose which they’d like to use for their curriculum and for the test.

There was a lot of excitement in the early days of ESSA about the innovative assessment pilot, but as my colleague Alyson Klein writes in this story, it has not ended up being all that popular with states. In part, that’s because of all the guardrails in the program: The tests have to be modified as appropriate for English-language learners and students with disabilities, and the results have to be comparable with those from the state tests. And that’s without any extra cash.

Louisiana seems to think the extra trouble is worth it. Read all 300 pages of the state’s proposal here.

Image: Sebastien Wiertz. Licensed under Flickr/Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.