Standardized Testing

The Big Lie about the “Science of Reading”

The Big Lie about the “Science of Reading”

While too often inordinately dangerous for the most vulnerable, social media can be a powerful window into how we think about and judge education. Recently, the reading wars have been once again invigorated; this time driven often by parents and advocates for students with special needs and accompanied by a very familiar refrain, the “science of reading.”

One problem with public debate about education is that political and public voices often lack experience and expertise in education as well as any sort of historical context.

First, those who have studied the history of education, and specifically the ever-recurring reading wars, know that there has never been a decade in the last 100+ years absent political and public distress about a reading crisis.

However, one doesn’t need a very long memory to recognize that if we currently are (finally?) having a reading crisis, it comes in the wake of almost two decades (nested in a larger four decades of accountability birthed under Ronald Reagan) dedicated to scientifically-based education policy, specifically reading policy driven by the National Reading Panel (NRP).

The NRP was touted as (finally?) a clearing house of high-quality evidence on teaching children to read (although it proved itself to be partisan hokum).

This is all quite fascinating in the context of the current media blitz about the reading crisis and a need (yes, once again) to focus on the science of reading. Concurrent with that media fail is a move within the academia to shift reading away from literacy experts and into the purview of special needs, treating all reading instruction as something like remediation or a learning disability.

For example, I noticed a very odd dynamic on social media: a post on a community Facebook page for advocates of education that was linked to a dyslexia Facebook page promoting this from Mississippi:

MS gains propaganda

The message included dramatic arguments: Mississippi has somehow found the science of reading and is excelling in ways South Carolina refuses to do.

Knowing standardized test scores, and NAEP specifically, well, I was immediately skeptical of these claims.

Here is the short version: In 2017 NAEP data, MS is slightly ahead of SC in 4th-grade reading (both states remain near the bottom and below the national average), but SC is slightly ahead of MS in 8th-grade reading(again, both near the bottom and below the national average):

4th reading 2017

8th reading 2017

While Mississippi is promoting gains (accurately), the data remain clear that high-poverty states tend to score low on standardized testing while more affluent states tend to score higher.

What is extremely important to note is that some traditionally low scoring states have found methods (test-prep, reading programs focused on raising test scores, and grade retention) that increase test scores short term(making for political propaganda), but those gains have proven to be a mirage, disappearing in the span between 3rd/4th- grade tests to 8th-grade tests and then high school (see, for example, research on Florida).

So we sit here with some real problems and questions: Is there a reading crisis in the U.S. and my home state of SC? And if so, is that crisis somehow the result of refusing to implement the science of reading?

Well, first, I need to note that the “science of reading” is code for intensive phonics and is intended as an antidote to the current evil in reading, balanced literacy.

Now, consider this: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a similar event happened when people started shouting about the reading crisis in California spawned by whole language (now, people claim balanced literacy and whole language are the same thing, and thus, equally evil).

Literacy scholar Stephen Krashen, and others, unmasked that round of the reading wars, noting that although CA claimed whole language as the official reading approach of the state, teachers were almost never practicing whole language.

Further, the reading score plummet of those years did correlate with whole language being the official policy, but the causes of those lower scores were a large influx of non-native speakers of English and significant decreases in educational funding (larger classes specifically negatively impacting achievement).

This isn’t particularly simple or compelling but let’s detail why this recent round of the reading wars is way off base:

  • Standardized tests of reading are only proxies of reading, typically they reduce reading to a series of discrete skills that test designers claim add up to reading. This is at least inadequate, if not misleading. No standardized test measures eagerness and joy for reading, as well; nearly none address critical literacy.
  • Making raising reading test scores your primary or exclusive goal is actually cheating all students. Period. And this is what many states are doing, including MS.
  • Achieving test score gains when you are low scoring is much easier that making gains when you are high achieving.
  • Adopting, implementing, and staying focused on any reading program—these are also very common practices, and completely flawed approaches to literacy. Access to books in the home and choice reading remain the strongest predictors of increased reading and reading achievement.
  • Ultimately, if we insist on using reading test scores to judge the quality of teaching reading in any state or the country, we must acknowledge that how students are being taught is both almost impossible to identify and completely impossible to characterize as one clear practice (teachers are very likely to shut their doors and do as they please, regardless of policies).
  • And most important is the fact that standardized test scores of reading are a reflection of a large number of factors, with teaching practices only one (probably small) causal factor.

To that last point, consider this matrix of 2017 NAEP reading scores (4th/8th) along with the poverty in each state, the African American population percentage, and the Hispanic/Latinx population percentage. These data portray a much more complex picture of the reading problem, and resist the distraction that how students are being taught reading is cheating students, who could be saved by the “science of reading” (which, by the way, is balanced literacy—o, irony):

NAEP reading 2017 1

NAEP reading 2017 2

NAEP reading 2017 3

NAEP reading 2017 4

NAEP reading 2017 5

NAEP reading 2017 6

NAEP reading 2017 7

The “science of reading” mantra is a Big Lie, but it is also a huge and costly distraction from some real problems.

Relatively affluent states still tend to score above average or average on reading tests; relatively poor states tend to score below average on reading tests.

Some states that historically scored low, under the weight of poverty and the consequences of conservative political ideology that refuses to address that poverty, have begun to implement harmful policies to raise test scores (see the magenta highlighting) in the short-term for political points.

It is 2019. There is no reading crisis in the way the “science of reading” advocates are claiming.

It is 2019. Balanced literacy is the science of reading, but it is not the most common way teachers are teaching reading because schools are almost exclusively trying to raise scores, not students who are eager, joyful, and critical readers.

It is 2019. Political and public efforts to do anything—often the wrong thing—so no one addresses poverty remain the American Way.

It is 2019. It is still mostly about poverty when people insist it is about reading and reading policy.

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Few States Want to Offer Districts Chance to Give ACT, SAT Instead of State Test (Education Week)

By Alyson Klein on January 7, 2018 4:53 PM

The Every Student Succeeds Act may have kept annual testing as a federal requirement. But it also aims to help states cut down on the number of assessments their students must take by giving districts the chance to use a nationally-recognized college entrance exam, instead of the regular state test, for accountability purposes.

When the law passed back in 2015, some superintendents hailed the change, saying it would mean one less test for many 11th graders, who would already be preparing for the SAT or ACT. Assessment experts, on the other hand, worried the change would make student progress a lot harder to track.

Now, more than two years after the law passed, it appears that only two states—North Dakota and Oklahoma—have immediate plans to offer their districts a choice of tests. Policymakers in at least two other states—Georgia and Florida—are thinking through the issue. Arizona and Oregon could also be in the mix.

That’s not exactly a mad dash to take advantage of the flexibility.

Offering a choice of tests can be a tall order for state education officials, said Julie Woods, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. They have to figure out how to pay for the college entrance exams, design a process for districts to apply for the flexibility, and find a way to compare student scores on the state test to scores on the SAT, ACT, or another test.

That’s “potentially a lot more work than states are currently doing,” Woods said. “States have to decide what the payoff is for them.”

What’s more, the prospect of allowing districts to pick between multiple tests—and potentially change them from year-to-year—drives assessment experts “batty,” said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, which works with states to design and implement tests.

“You’re just lost, you’re just grasping at straws for any kind of comparability” among school districts that take different tests, he said. “You’re supposedly giving districts free choice and all that nice stuff.” But states must decide, “do they care about flexibility or do they care about a comparable accountability system? It’s hard to have both.”

Marion argued that districts might not make technical quality their top criteria for choosing a test. Instead, the pick may be subject to the whims of the local school board or superintendent—positions that tend to have high turnover.

For now, Woods said, most states that want to use college entrance exams for accountability are using those tests as their primary state-wide high school assessment. In fact, a dozen states use either the SAT or the ACT for accountability, according to an Education Week survey published last year.

Potential State Takers

But some states think the potential upside outweighs any concerns.

North Dakota, for instance, wants to offer its districts the chance to take the ACT instead of the state exam, said Kay Mayer, a spokeswoman for the state education department. The state will need approval from the feds for technical reasons, dealing with the federal peer review process. (More on page 2 of this memo from the state to its districts.)

And Oklahoma plans to give districts a choice between two most popular college entrance exams—the ACT and the SAT. The move is very popular with districts, according to Oklahoma’s ESSA plan, which was submitted to the feds in September.

“Oklahoma’s decision to use a commercial, off-the-shelf college-readiness assessment (e.g. SAT, ACT) as the high school assessment enjoys broad support from stakeholders all over the state [and] responds to local district needs, and has been codified in state law,” the Sooner State said in its plan. (Check out the language for yourself on page 27 of the plan.)

Importantly, Oklahoma doesn’t currently designate either the ACT or SAT as its main assessment for high school accountability. Instead, the state plans to offer its districts a choice of either test without stating a preference. It’s unclear if that that will fly with the feds. The department told the state it needs to pick one test or the other as its primary high school exam, in its feedback letter to Oklahoma.

Georgia finds the option enticing, too. In fact, the state legislature passed a bill last year calling on state board to examine this and other testing flexibility offered under ESSA. The state has started on that work now, said Allison Timberlake, the interim deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability.

“It’s a slow methodical process to make sure that everything is in place and well aligned,” Timberlake said. Among the considerations: whether the college entrance tests offer appropriate accommodations for English-language learners and students in special education and whether they mesh with the state’s content standards.

State lawmakers in Florida have also expressed interest in offering their districts a choice of the ACT, SAT, or state exam. So far, though, bills that would make this possible have died in the legislature. State law prohibits the education department from making the change on its own, a spokeswoman said. Lawmakers required the state to study the issue. A report released last week concluded that it wasn’t a good idea, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Oregon’s ESSA plan, which has gotten the green light from the U.S. Department of Education, includes a line saying the state will “pursue flexibility under ESSA to allow districts to use a nationally recognized assessment in place of the state exam.” The state said it will consider a host of factors, including educator feedback, in making the change. (For more, check out page 27 of Oregon’s plan).

And Arizona has also passed a law that would give its districts a choice of tests, not just in high school, but in K-8 schools, too. Offering middle and elementary schools a choice of tests would be a violation of ESSA, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., an ESSA architect, has argued. Arizona didn’t include any mention of its testing law in its ESSA plan, which has already been approved by the feds, so it’s an open question whether the state will move forward on this.


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