Is DC about to blow its chance to encourage a broader school curriculum?

What gets tested, it’s said, gets taught—and by the same token, what doesn’t get tested gets ignored. Want proof? Just look at how the school curriculum has shriveled since the advent of high-stakes testing in reading and math fifteen years ago. Now D.C. has a chance to reverse some of that unintended damage. And it’s about to blow that chance.

Pencil And Test

The new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), has given states (and D.C.) more freedom to use measures beyond reading and math scores in ranking their public schools, including charters. Under the old law, No Child Left Behind, the only measure of quality was the percentage of a school’s students who scored at the proficient level on state tests.

That test-focused approach served to highlight the vast difference in scores between more affluent students–who, in D.C., are almost all white–and poor and minority students. But it also anointed schools as “high-performing” if they just happened to have students who came in equipped to score well on tests. And it did nothing to reward schools that succeeded in bringing the lowest-performing students up to a middling level, often no easy feat. NCLB also sparked a backlash against over-testing and excessive test prep–which led to the enactment of its replacement, ESSA, in 2015.

ESSA calls for states to come up with new plans for holding schools accountable and gives them flexibility to add measures other than reading and math scores. And yet the D.C. agency charged with coming up with a new school accountability plan–the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE)–wants to base a full 80% of the rating for middle and elementary schools on (wait for it …) reading and math scores.

For high schools—which are required by ESSA to test students only once during their high school careers—only 50% of the rating would rest on test scores. But at least the elementary and middle school ratings give schools some credit for bringing up the scores of low performers: 40% of their rating is based on the percent of students scoring proficient, and the other 40% is based on growth in student scores. The high school rating is based only on proficiency.

What else does OSSE propose to measure? Factors like attendance, re-enrollment, and—for high schools—graduation rates. Nothing about whether a school is actually teaching science, social studies, or art.

Does it matter what country Columbus discovered?

This may sound like a wonky, abstruse debate. But it has huge real-world consequences. A case in point: One D.C. elementary school teacher I’ve spoken with, who I’ll call Ms. Smith, is responsible for teaching both English Language Arts (or literacy) and social studies–a common arrangement in elementary schools. Another teacher at her school, which serves a diverse population, is responsible for teaching both math and science. But, Ms. Smith told me, the math-and-science teacher often uses the time set aside for science to remediate students’ math skills. And while she herself would like to focus on social studies, she feels pressure to focus on her students’ literacy skills—because that’s what gets tested.

“There are no consequences attached to understanding or misunderstanding the content,” Ms. Smith said. “The test isn’t going to be a quiz about where the Navajo people resided, or is this a sedimentary rock, or whatever. On the [test], none of the passages had anything to do with what we studied.”

So Ms. Smith focuses on the reading comprehension skills she thinks will be tested: finding the main idea of a text, connecting a claim to evidence in the text, making inferences based on a text. But what Ms. Smith and many others don’t take into account is that students won’t be able to demonstrate those skills on a reading test if they can’t understand the texts they’re given. And they’ll only understand those texts if they’ve acquired knowledge about the world and the vocabulary that goes with it.

How can they acquire that knowledge and vocabulary, especially if they’re coming from homes where such things in short supply? By studying social studies, science, and art in school—exactly the subjects that schools are ignoring because it appears they’re not being tested.

Some top DCPS officials sighed when I told them about Ms. Smith. They say they’ve tried repeatedly to get the message across to teachers that spending time on reading comprehension “skills” won’t boost test scores. But as long as teachers and school administrators think kids are being tested in reading rather than general knowledge—which is, essentially, what reading tests evaluate—it’s going to be hard for them to hear that message.

Ms. Smith is far from alone in failing to see the connection between a broad, rich curriculum and success on test scores—not to mention in life. The Washington Post’s editorial board has applauded OSSE’s draft accountability plan, advising the D.C. State Board of Education to approve it, as is required before it can take effect—and inaccurately implying that the only opposition to the plan’s emphasis on test scores is coming from the teachers’ union.

“The board must stand firm on the principle that the best—and most accurate—way to hold schools accountable for student learning is to measure what students have actually learned,” the editors declared.

That sounds like a sensible principle. But the problem is that standardized tests aren’t designed to “measure what students have actually learned,” at least not in the sense of what they’ve learned in school. That isn’t possible under our current system, because students in various localities are all learning different content—or perhaps not learning any content at all.

Ms. Smith was dismayed when, after a unit on Columbus during which she had focused on skills more than content, one of her fourth-graders volunteered the information that the country Columbus had discovered was China.

Getting out the message that content counts

Ideally, we would have a system in this country that did evaluate schools on what they had taught their students. That would send a clear message to teachers that content is important. It would not only level the playing field for kids who have never heard of Columbus outside of school, it would also make school a whole lot more interesting and fun for everyone. Not to mention that we live in a democracy, where it’s crucial for citizens to gain some knowledge of history and civics.

But that kind of system is not in the cards at the moment. So what can OSSE do to help make the system fairer and make school more engaging—not to mention more effective at raising those all-important test scores? One DCPS official—Scott Abbott, the Director of Social Studies in the Office of Teaching and Learning—has suggested a “Well Rounded Education” index that would give schools credit for spending at least 100 minutes a week each on social studies, science, and “specials” like music and art.

The index, which would also require “civic readiness” activities and using the “city as a classroom,” would count for 10% of a school’s score. To allow for that, Abbott proposes reducing the percentage devoted to test proficiency from 40% to 30%. In most cases, that would still leave 70% of a school’s rating dependent on test scores. DC State Board of Education member Ruth Wattenberg has also called for including a measure of academic well-roundedness and advocates reducing the test-score percentage to between 60 and 65%.

These are modest proposals, but either could be a start on the path away from a self-defeating curriculum of basic “skills” and towards a richer and more meaningful school experience for all D.C. public school students and their teachers.

Want to add your voice? OSSE is accepting public comments on its draft plan until March 3. You can email the agency at or fill out a survey by following this link.

Why reading tests don’t actually test reading skills

Here’s a quick question: Do reading tests test reading skills? You may think that’s a question on the order of “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” But if you said yes, the real answer may surprise you.

Pretty Young School Girl Reading A Book

Reading tests–of the standardized variety that kids in public schools take–are certainly supposed to test reading skills. The tests that have come into use in the past few years, which are aligned to the Common Core State Standards, are aiming to test skills like “finding the main idea and key details,” and “making logical inferences from text.”

But what if you can’t understand the reading passages, because they assume a lot of knowledge and vocabulary you don’t have? Would you be able to demonstrate your skill at finding the main idea or making inferences if you couldn’t understand what you’d just read?

That’s the problem that many kids–and especially those from low-income, less educated families–confront when they take reading tests. And that’s a huge reason why test scores for that segment of the student population have remained stubbornly abysmal.

This is a truth that some people–although not the majority of those involved in education–have long acknowledged. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has declared that reading tests are really just “knowledge tests in disguise.”

Now we have some good, hard evidence to back up that assertion with respect to the two most widely used Common Core-aligned reading tests. These are the tests designed by two consortia, one called Smarter Balanced and the other called PARCC. DC students take PARCC in 3rd through 8th grade, and again in high school, usually in 10th grade.

The evidence comes in the form of an analysis by Ruth Wattenberg, a member of the DC State Education, who studied released questions from the two tests and wrote up her findings for a new-ish organization called Knowledge Matters. That organization is making the case that if we want to teach kids to understand what they read–and prepare them for high school, college, and life–we need to teach them history, science, and the arts beginning in the early elementary grades.

Right now, most elementary school students–and especially those from low-income families, who are the least likely to pick up knowledge about these subjects at home–are getting a steady diet of math and reading. “Reading” usually means a lot of work on foundational skills like phonics–which is important. But it also means hours of practicing supposedly abstract reading comprehension skills like “finding the main idea,” with the theory being that once you’ve perfected that skill on simple texts, you’ll be able to apply it to find the main idea of any text, no matter how complex.

That theory–as many experiments have demonstrated–is actually wrong. While some practice with reading comprehension skills can be helpful, the main determinant of whether you can understand what you’re reading is whether you have the relevant background knowledge and vocabulary. And the best way to expand your background knowledge and vocabulary is to learn about things like history, science, and the arts.

The people who design the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests actually understand this. Since there’s no way of knowing which students have studied what, the idea is to cover a wide variety of topics, to balance out whatever unfair advantages in background knowledge some kids might have. If one group of kids has studied snowy owls, for example, and there’s a passage on snowy owls on the test, they might ace that. But then the next passage might be on ancient China, which they know nothing about–but some other kids might have studied that.

Of course, these days, students in many elementary schools are unlikely to have studied much of anything aside from reading and math skills. So the wide variety of topics on reading tests privileges the kids who have acquired a fair amount of knowledge from home. And those kids tend to be the wealthier ones.

Wattenberg looked primarily at 3rd-grade questions about “informational text” passages, most of which had something to do with geography or science. She found that even these 3rd-grade passages assumed a lot of knowledge and vocabulary that many eight-year-olds would be unfamiliar with–concepts like the names and general locations of continents and units of measurement like kilograms, as well as vocabulary like “rodent, “intestine,” “crystallizes,” and “Aurora Borealis.”

From interacting with low-income high school students and speaking with some of their teachers, I know there are many high school students who are unfamiliar with these words and concepts. I can only imagine the confusion of a low-income 3rd-grader when confronted by them.

Here’s an example of just one paragraph from one of the reading passages Wattenberg analyzed, with the words she identified as challenging replaced by a nonsense word, blunk. See if you can make sense of it:

In one of the most blunk places in the world, the blunk blunk, a people have survived over a blunk of [sic] years. They are the blunk. For the blunk, the blunk is a place blunk with life. Depending on how far north they live, the blunk find everything from blunk blunk and blunk blunk to blunk blunk. The blunk have blunk themselves to the various blunk they blunk. At one time they were considered to be among the healthiest people in the world. This is no longer the case; the blunk blunk has changed blunk over the past blunk. The arrival of blunk and modern blunk resulted in big changes to the blunk diet and blunk blunk blunk.

Here’s the passage with the words included, for the sake of comparison:

In one of the most remote places in the world, the Canadian Arctic, a people have survived over a thousand of years. [sic] They are the Inuit. For the Inuit, the Arctic is a place teeming with life. Depending on how far north they live, the Inuit find everything from Caribou herds and polar bears to beluga whales. The Inuit have adapted themselves to the various regions they inhabit. At one time they were considered to be among the healthiest people in the world. This is no longer the case; the Inuit lifestyle has changed dramatically over the past decades. The arrival of southerners and modern technology resulted in big changes to the Inuit diet and way of life.

The point is not that we should lower our expectations for what 3rd graders can read and understand. The point is that it’s unrealistic to expect kids to meet those expectations if we haven’t given them—and their teachers—the tools that will enable them to do so.

Wattenberg’s analysis is well worth reading in its entirety. You can find it here.

Come hear the cognitive scientist: why our efforts to help struggling readers haven’t worked

Why is it harder to raise reading scores than math scores for students from low-income families? And why do kids who seem to read well in elementary school then struggle with grade-level text in middle and high school?

Students Standing In Classroom.

For decades, most elementary schools have taught reading as a skill: children have practiced reading comprehension strategies like “finding the main idea” or “making inferences” on simple stories. The theory has been that it doesn’t matter what students are reading, as long as they’re reading something. And in many elementary schools, especially those serving low-income students, the curriculum has been narrowed to “the basics:” reading and math.

But reading comprehension is highly dependent on background knowledge–as Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, will explain when he comes to DC on Wednesday, June 2. If students don’t learn about history, science, and the arts in elementary school, they’ll be at a tremendous disadvantage in high school, when they encounter texts that assume a lot of knowledge and vocabulary they don’t have. That’s particularly true for low-income students, who are far less likely to acquire academic knowledge at home. But all students will benefit from a broad, content-rich curriculum–and they’ll also find it more engaging than a narrow focus on reading skills.

Willingham is an accessible and engaging speaker as well as the author of several popular books–and the cognitive scientist behind the column “Ask the Cognitive Scientist,” a recurring feature of American Educator magazine. He has become one of the leading advocates of bringing content and a focus on building knowledge into the elementary school curriculum and
was recently cited in a speech by Secretary of Education John B. King. “We know from decades of research from folks like Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia that knowledge matters for reading success,” King said. “It is not about reading vs. science and social studies.”

Willingham will speak on Wednesday, June 1, from 6:30 to 8 at McKinley Tech High School, 151 T Street NE. Parking is available behind the school. To RSVP, email Ward 3 State Board of Education representative Ruth Wattenberg at

This event is co-sponsored by the DC State Board of Education, SHAPPE (Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators), DC Public Schools, the Public Charter School Board, Coalition for 4 DC Schools and Communities (representing all 8 Ward Education Councils), Washington Teachers Union, DC Language Immersion Project, Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and Deputy Mayor of Education.

I hope to see you there!