Op-Ed: New Jersey’s Schools Need More Reading and Less Testing

Christopher de Vinck | February 22, 2019 | Opinion
Our education system is overly focused on tests and standards, and pays far too little attention to improving children’s reading skills

Christopher de Vinck
Most of my report cards from first grade through high school nearly bled red “F’s onto my parents’ laps. “Pay attention in school,” my father suggested. “Work harder,” my mother sighed. My parents, both highly educated European immigrants, spent their little money and all their energies raising six children (one of my brothers was severely disabled). They knew nothing about American schools, and trusted that teachers and administrators knew what they were doing.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), funded by the U.S. Department of Education conducts the largest national assessment of what America’s students know in various subject areas. It has shown, consistently, that at age 17, the average reading ability is not significantly different than it was in 1971.

So, like my parents, the national education community has been exhorting us to pay attention and to work harder. And, like my parents, scholars, governors, businessmen and women and superintendents have completely missed what ought to be at the center of our children’s education in this country.

Our country has tried to improve the quality of education. Just look at a sample of those attempts: the open classroom movement, single gender schools, standard-based testing, integration, magnet schools, charter schools, whole language, market theory, teacher evaluations, computers, tenure reform, assessment, raise the bar, No Child Left Behind, the Race to the Top, local control, hard work, raise graduation requirements. And yet the average reading scores for 17-year-old children is not significantly different than it was 30 years ago.

We as a nation are rolling out standards for “a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” And how are teachers and students going to be measured to ensure that these standards will be met given that various competing testing agencies that claim that they represent a consortium of states working to develop accurate assessments that measure students’ progress?

The key to education reform

Yes, children, work harder and pay attention and you will be ready for college. Not true. Yes, teachers, we’ll tie test scores into your evaluations and fire you if you can’t teach hungry, fatherless children how to solve equations. Let’s create national tests and a national curriculum. Let’s create an education system based on fear. Let’s give children more tests, pay teachers less, and make everyone work harder and pay attention.

Like my parents, we continue to miss what ought to be at the center of education reform. The standards movement is actually close to that center, but with the hyperdrive of testing and using teachers as the scapegoats for political gain, we miss the opportunity again and again to make significant changes in our schools.

As far as schools are concerned, Betty Hart, who died in the fall of 2012 at the age of 85, should have been my mother. Betty Hart should have been the mother or the superintendent of all our children when it comes to their schooling.

During the 1960s, when the education community believed that poor children were victims of poverty and weak minds, Dr. Hart, a graduate student at the University of Kansas, didn’t believe this on any level.

Many years later, Dr. Hart and her colleague Todd Risley discovered through research that by the time children in a professional home reach the age of 4 they accumulate experiences with 45 million words. The research showed that children in working-class families accumulate experiences with 26 million words, and children in poor families accumulate experiences with 13 million words.

Words matter

Our problem in our education system has nothing to do with poverty, teacher unions, tests, standards, money. The problem in our schools is that some children are exposed to more words than other children.

NAEP, the same organization that has been tracking reading achievement for these past many years, also conducted what I believe to be one of the most important bits of education research that I have read in my 40 years in education. “Who Reads Best” concluded in 1988 that the best students in our schools are the students who read the most. Every educator, every politician will say “there is no magic bullet in education reform.” But there is: The best academic students in our schools are the students who read the most.

NAEP not only wanted to know who the best readers were, it also wanted to find out how these students became the best readers and, hence, the best academic students in the schools and colleges. It discovered that these children had adults who cared about their education, read novels, read often, visited the library, read what they love to read, and did homework with their children. If these are the things that create best readers, and if best readers are the best academic students, then these are the things that we ought to be focusing on in our schools.

The standards movement does pay attention to the importance of reading, and the new assessment tools do measure the experiences children have with reading, but teachers are being insulted with low wages, cut benefits, and driven by fear, and children are being sacrifice to the nonsense of testing. Schools are implementing teacher evaluation schemes, increasing graduation requirements, adding Smartboards and iPads, and tying test scores to teachers’ pay and federal dollars.

How we go about improving test scores has always been misguided. All these efforts are just fiddling with the edges of education reform.

How to test

My mother couldn’t speak English when she came to this country. My brother was in bed for 32 years with no intellect, blind, and helpless. I never read a book until I was in high school, and by that time my report cards, and my soul, bled so much that I was on emotional life-support. I was a D- student for 12 years in grammar, middle and high school. I limped into college and there a professor, Michael Holden, said I was a smart kid and he gave me poems to read, then small books on philosophy, and some plays and then novels: Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and then Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I named my second son after that professor.

I suggest we need an assessment process that cuts right to the very heart of what it means to be educated.

First, every child in kindergarten to high school ought to be read aloud to every day in school for an hour. Every child in kindergarten through high school ought to be given an hour of reading homework from a novel. Every child in K-12 ought to be taken to the library once a week, read books that they love, and have teachers and parents who deeply care about their children’s academic and social successes.

Second, the assessment ought to simply be a child’s demonstration of reading proficiency by simply reading aloud, not by filling in bubble answer sheets. The child who reads a lot, reads with great success. That success can be demonstrated (not measured) when a child in fourth grade reads aloud a page from Charlotte’s Web, or a student in 11th grade reads aloud a page from The Great Gatsby.

Why is it that our highest-achieving students come from our wealthiest schools? Because they read more than children in poor and working-class families.

If we want to stop brutalizing children and teachers with tests and standards, if we want to give all children access to college and careers, we need to ignore the tests, make reading the center of what we do in schools and sit back and watch the reading scores shoot up.

We pay far too much attention to assessments and outcomes, and far too little attention to the journey.