06/23/2014 09:26 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

Inauthentic Reading Assessment

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Does it seem as if test writers come up with the most obscure, boring, reading-resistant passages possible for standardized test? It's not just you. It's a deliberate choice, and not necessarily an ill-intended one, but the result is a completely unreal inauthentic reading experience that real humans don't have anywhere except on standardized tests.

One goal in test design is to steer the ship of assessment past the shoals of "prior knowledge." After all, if I'm in Pittsburgh and my test includes a reading passage about the Steelers with questions about Troy Polamalu's career stats, I won't know if the students answered correctly because they read the passage or because they already know the stats.

I want a level playing field. So I am looking for a passage that my test-takers are unlikely to have any prior knowledge about. In fact, since I'm trying to create a standardized test on the national scale, my third grade testing goal is to find selections for which no 8-year-old anywhere in America would have prior knowledge.

That's how 8-year-olds end up taking tests on selections centered on the village politics of ancient Turkey.

But let's look at just how inauthentic that is.

In school, we always present new material by connecting it to old material. We do this because A) we are trained educators and B) we are not idiots. The most fundamental way of absorbing new material is to connect it to what we already know. As teachers, we use that to our advantage, and we model it for our students. They aren't just learning to read -- they're learning how to learn. Part of the whole business of becoming an educated person is acquiring enough background that no matter what New Stuff we encounter, we have the foundation of knowledge to connect the New Stuff to Stuff We Already Know.

We also model attack skills, the skills needed to make sense of things that do not, initially, make sense. Don't understand that? Ask somebody. And in the 21st century -- get out your device and look it up.

In real life, we read things we are interested in, which means we already have some prior knowledge about the content before we even start. And our real-world presentation of reading materials always involves some reader prep, from the blurbs on the back cover of a book to the pull-quotes and sub-headlines in non-fiction articles.

I just looked at a wired article about photochrons with a blurb calling them the instagrams of the 1800s, which is not exactly accurate, but it immediately communicates where we're going for everyone who doesn't already know about photochrons (aka "pretty much everyone"). That connecting idea would be a complete no-no in standardized test land, yet in the real world, it's exactly what a good editor does.

Where in real life do we ever pick up something that has no connection to anything we already know, and then read it without the ability to do simple look-it-up research to make sense of the hard parts?

Nowhere. The type of reading we demand students do on reading tests is a type of reading that isn't done anywhere except on reading tests. Well, and of course now, also, in all the classrooms that are trying to get students ready for these inauthentic reading tests. The current perversion of close reading that insists on teaching students short excerpts with no scaffolding or preparation has nothing to do with teaching readers and everything to do with test prep.

It has been said many many times, but it's important enough that somebody should be saying it, again, every week. Reading instruction is a casualty of testing, twisted into test prep that does not teach our students how real readers read in the real world. It is not aimed at preparing lifetime readers, but at preparing test takers.

Cross-posted from Curmudgucation