Curious about the status of the “Reading Wars,” education reporter John Merrow recently visited a “great” school in a high-poverty neighborhood. It’s a school where first graders are succeeding—but only one in five fourth grade students reads at grade level.
Among other hypotheses, their teachers wonder (as others have found) if the fourth graders’ lack of content knowledge negatively impacts their reading comprehension. After all, as students progress to more complex texts at higher grade levels, content knowledge matters all the more. Merrow writes:
“Now they have to reach conclusions and draw inferences, and that’s much tougher.
“We looked over past tests, and, sure enough, the passages were about subjects that poor kids in the south Bronx may not be familiar with (cicadas or dragonflies were two of the subjects, for example). Answering the questions did require inferential leaps, just as we had been told.”
In first grade, basic decoding skills are enough to unpack even bizarre sentences like Merrow’s “The blue pancake went swimming in the lake and ate a frog.” But they’re not enough to answer more difficult reading comprehension questions, such as those on the 4th grade NAEP in Reading, which touch on science and social studies content (examples, here).
While fourth grade scores have risen slightly in the past fifteen years, the scores of 8th and 12th graders are stagnant. Schools like the one Merrow visited have made huge strides in teaching their youngest students essential decoding skills. In fact, with older students’ scores so low in comparison, Merrow surmises that maybe their reading deficiencies are only in the eyes of the tests. Or the result of test-taking anxiety or a growing awareness of poverty.
The impact of poverty is inarguable. And test scores are far from perfect tools of evaluation. But here’s another possibility: Maybe schools are failing to teach important content, and, more importantly, maybe they’re failing to gift students with a thirst for it. And no amount of test prep can make up for this lack.
Update: Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio has a similar take. It’s worth your read.