What do outer space and Appalachia have in common? They're both topics that students could encounter in reading comprehension passages on typical state tests. And they illustrate E.D. Hirsch's big beef with such assessments: they mean to test students' reading abilities, but they really test students' knowledge on randomly-chosen topics. Hirsch complains in the Times that "Teachers can't prepare for the content of the tests and so they substitute practice exams and countless hours of instruction in comprehension strategies like 'finding the main idea.'" These strategies inevitably fail to boost reading achievement and waste time that could be used to develop children's vocabulary and knowledge. But there's a solution: reading tests tied to each state's content standards in literature, science, history, geography, and the arts. Of course, that won't work in many states, as their standards are so vague. Still, as Hirsch explains, "we need to move from teaching to the test to tests that are worth teaching to." In with passages about the Boston Tea party; out with those on the Mexican axolotl.
"Reading Test Dummies," E.D. Hirsch, New York Times, March 22, 2009