by Robert Pondiscio, Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

This post originally appeared in Flypaper, the Fordham Institute’s blog, and is re-posted here with permission.

E.D. Hirsch, Jr. turned ninety years old two weeks ago. And the state of Louisiana has given the Cultural Literacy icon and architect of the Core Knowledge curriculum a belated birthday present. In a little-noticed press release issued Monday, the state’s Department of Education announced its plan, under a provision of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, to develop and pilot a “streamlined English and social studies assessment….that align[s] with the knowledge and books taught in Louisiana classrooms.” Unlike most reading tests, which ask students to find the main idea or make inferences on reading passages about random topics, Louisiana plans to create test items on books and topics test-takers have actually studied in school and try them out in five school districts in the state, including two charter school networks.

If you’re familiar with Hirsch’s work, his many books including The Knowledge Deficit and The Making of Americans; if you understand the connection between background knowledge and language proficiency that he has championed for many decades, then Louisiana’s move is as obvious to you as it is overdue. For the uninitiated, University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in a recent blog post offered an economical summary of the Hirschean oeuvre:

Background knowledge is the main driver of language comprehension, whether written or spoken. Disadvantaged students are disproportionately dependent on schools to provide the background information that will make them effective readers because wealthy students have greater opportunity to gain this knowledge at home.

Simple. Intuitive. Obvious. At least until it’s time for students to sit for a standardized reading test. For years, Hirsch has made the case that such tests are fundamentally unfair to disadvantaged children, particularly low-income children of color, because of the nature of language itself. We may perceive reading comprehension as a content-neutral “skill” that can be taught, practiced, mastered, and tested in the abstract on any random topic, but this is deeply misleading. All reading tests are de facto tests of background knowledge, a point Hirsch made in a 2010 piece in The American Prospect, which I had the privilege to co-author, bluntly titled, “There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test”:

Researchers have consistently demonstrated that in order to understand what you’re reading, you need to know something about the subject matter. Students who are identified as “poor readers” comprehend with relative ease when asked to read passages on familiar subjects, outperforming even “good readers” who lack relevant background knowledge…Such findings should challenge our very idea of who is or is not good reader.

“The trouble is that by not requiring knowledge of any specific book or facts, reading tests have contributed to the false impression that reading is mainly about having skills such as being able to summarize, and not about background knowledge,” noted Lousiana’s state superintendent of education, John White. “By not requiring knowledge, tests create no incentive for particular knowledge to be taught.” This creates several kinds of mischief in schools trying their best to prepare students for high-stakes exams. When the knowledge demands of reading tests are unknown, it encourages teachers to devalue knowledge and prepare students by teaching comprehension “skills and strategies,” which are of limited value. And thus schools and teachers have no incentive to give disadvantaged kids what they need most: access to the broad general knowledge in science, social studies, the arts, and other subjects that advantaged kids are far more likely to encounter in their daily lives, and which are the true drivers of sophisticated language proficiency

In sum, what Louisiana proposes to experiment with is something of an assessment Holy Grail: a reading test that incentivizes the kind of teaching and learning disadvantaged students need to close pernicious achievement gaps in ELA. Keep that in mind next week when you hear the inevitably depressing results on NAEP reading.

The Louisiana proposal is a modest one, limited to five school districts and charter networks in the state. Modest, but portentous. For the first time, the education leadership of a U.S. state has demonstrated in its assessment policies a grasp of the foundational idea that English language proficiency is not a “skill” like throwing a ball or riding a bike that can be taught and tested in an abstract, content-agnostic way. The pilot signals the critical awareness that language-proficiency is knowledge dependent, and that educational equity is not served by ignoring this or trying to wish it away.

I suspect the pilot may get more attention for reducing the number of tests students take and for spreading them out over the school year, so that students are assessed immediately following a unit’s completion, leading to a cumulative score. But the longer-term win is to drive home the connection between broad general knowledge and broad general reading ability. Once established, that has the potential to have a dramatic impact by challenging the long dominant skills-and-strategies approach to reading instruction in favor of one that sees knowledge development in children—particularly disadvantaged children—as the indispensible Job One of reading instruction in American classrooms.

Bravo, Louisiana. And happy birthday, E.D Hirsch, Jr.

15 comments on “Louisiana’s Remarkable Reading Test”

  1. 1
    Ann Moore on May 3, 2018

    Wow! What a fabulous concept! Please bring this idea to all states. The success rate for students should go up considerably when the test has value.

    1. 2
      Sylvia Canales on September 23, 2018

      I personally have been an educator for 10 years now and I am so intrigued with this concept; it is so interesting and beneficial for the children to have Louisiana have each student be tested on current books in their school. From my own personal experience, I have found that for my students reading information and making connections is essential in their learning. This concept should also be in Texas.

    2. 3
      Jordan on January 27, 2019

      This is an interesting proposal that I hope comes to fruition. It is in imperative that students are given a fair chance to demonstrate their reading abilities with content they are familiar rather than arbitrarily answering questions for which the students do not have background knowledge. I have a few questions on areas that were not discussed in the post:
      1. Will this assessment be given after every unit in ELA and Social Studies or at the end of the school year?
      2. Does this assessment evaluate students reading comprehension or fundamental reading abilities (decoding/word recognition)?
      3. Will students with IEPs be able to use their accommodations, such as text-to-speech or verbatim reading?
      I am curious to see the results of the pilot schools, as this will give insight into what is most needed in our local and state assessments.

  2. 4
    Wanda Colkmire on May 3, 2018

    I taught for 25 years and this is the first time I have seen some merit behind the idea. I can remember giving southern low income students a standardized test which included questions about cellars and furnaces in the cellar. What? Kids raised in the low areas of Louisiana can be told about cellars but have no idea if they have never seen one. Students spend so much time working on testing skills that they miss the really good stuff. I used stories about the buffalo soldiers and reading about the Titanic. These things interested all the students. We need to teach for the love of reading and quit testing, testing, testing. Get the college students into classrooms much sooner. They need to know what their duties will be. We need their help.

    1. 5
      nikesha k. on May 26, 2018


      I have been teaching for seven years now and I think this idea is GREAT! Many of the students that I teach have to go back and research the text that they are reading because they have little to no prior knowledge of what the story is about. Simple things like kayaking, canoeing, or rafting are foreign to the students that I teach. It takes at least a week to teach them everything that they will need to know to be able to read and comprehend the text. This new test will show that they are using what they know.

    2. 6
      Noreen on November 14, 2018

      I have taught in a Connecticut elementary school for 15 years and I agree with your comments about teaching what students have background knowledge of and some interest in. I recall a test that included a beach scenario and many of my students of color had never been to the beach. Abstract concepts are not going to hold meaning for students, and I am afraid this continued testing will deter them from a love of learning.

    3. 7
      Lazander Vancourt on May 26, 2019

      This is a good idea for students in Louisiana. It’s draining for the teachers and students when schools only focus on testing. I can remember giving students a two-week practice test, then they tested for three weeks, taking the state interim, and finally, they went straight into three weeks of state testing. This was two months of testing. One of Louisiana reading curriculum is Learn Zillion. Teachers and students have found the novels to be very boring and not related to anything students may be interested in. For example, one of the 5th-grade books is about immigration in the 1800s.
      With this proposal, the students’ score should go up in reading.
      I believe kids should read books that they’re interested in and can relate to.

  3. 8
    Ashley Powell on May 25, 2018

    I love this proposal. I have taught students who read significantly below grade level for 3 years now. They are expected to take a standardized test covering concepts and standards in the spring that they have not mastered, or even been exposed to, because of reading curriculum that we are mandated to teach. Teachers have to bridge the gap and build upon the student’s lack of phonics skills and/or phonemic awareness skills. Testing over texts or passages that do not resonate with young people produce scores that are not equivalent to what they may or may not know and understand. I think this proposal is a fair opportunity to display all students’ knowledge of particular books and will give a truer picture of what children know and don’t know.

  4. 9
    Sharnette on January 23, 2019

    This is a wonderful concept. Oftentimes, students test on material they have not necessarily learned, and therefore the test are not a true representation of students’ knowledge. Additionally, because some students lack stamina or have other educational concerns, they are not necessarily able to focus on passage that have no relation to their knowledge base or interest. As a result they may not read as carefully as they should. Testing students on topics of interest and topics that are familiar to them from their learning should help to see test score increase. It can also have a positive impact on students self-worth who feel they are doing all they can to pass high stakes test and are consistently not doing well.

  5. 10
    Becky Garza on March 24, 2019

    This sounds like an interesting concept as taking standardized test has been difficult for those that may teach in a low income/socioeconomically disadvantaged area. This may boost the confidence of students that may feel like failures when they must take a state exam and be compared to all students of the state.

    1. 11
      Haley on July 17, 2019

      When you mention comparing students across the state, it makes me wonder if this would be the type of test every student would eventually take. If every student takes a test on reading that is personally relevant based on school, we would diminish the idea of teaching as a place to compare students. Instead, we could celebrate teaching as a profession where students are compared to themselves as they grow.

      Overall, this new assessment pilot does seem unique. It brings up the conversation regarding the achievement gap versus an opportunity gap. This article emphasizes that it is truly the lack of opportunities some students experience that causes them to not achieve as high. This also makes me reconsider the literature used in my classroom. My books might need updating strictly for the purpose of having a reason to discuss art and travel experiences. Our school connects science and social studies to the reading curriculum. Now I’m wondering if the reading curriculum needs to be about different current activities for exposure purposes.

      Though the article’s focus was on the pilot test, it made me reconsider the teaching strategies I use with my many students who are learning English or live in low-income areas.

  6. 12
    hwatson.WaldenU on July 17, 2019

    I think this is a fantastic idea! We know that there is a correlation between background knowledge and comprehension, so this will help those lower-level students be able to connect with the test that often gives them so much anxiety. However, I taught in Louisiana and know that in a lot of districts, some schools are not getting the materials and textbooks they need to teach their content. My question is, how will you ensure that ALL students have access to this knowledge and that ALL schools will have the curriculum and materials needed to provide that background knowledge for students? In addition, will this content be culturally responsive? Will students be able to connect to the readings in order to have more of a buy-in?

  7. 13
    HWalker on September 18, 2019

    It’s sad that in 2019 we are still trying to figure out how to educate “disadvantaged children, particularly low-income children of color.” It sounds like students are being penalized for their lack of experiences instead of their actual abilities. Not knowing what a canoe is or never experiencing the beach should not categorize students as poor readers. Many of these standardized tests are bias and are used to cripple a particular group of learners, and until this is addressed the achievement gap will continue to widen.

  8. 14
    Erin S. on November 13, 2019

    Hats off to Louisiana for offering a pilot reading test that is aligned to the curriculum and textbook used by the teacher and students. Some school districts give standardized tests (that are not aligned to the curriculum) to students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and to students who are English Language Learners (ELLs). Those students are counted in the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) of school districts and can make up at least 30% of the student body. Not only is the standardized exam not aligned with the curriculum, but support is not given to them during standardized tests (i.e. interpreters provided). If school districts follow Louisiana’s piloted reading test, students will have a better chance of succeeding on standardized test and more schools will begin to meet their AYP.

  9. 15
    Erin Smith on November 17, 2019

    Students who perform well on standardized tests are perhaps better prepared and know what to expect.
    However, would you agree that a poorly designed standardized test (which neither aligns to classroom instruction or the textbook) could perpetuate unfairness?

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