As schools across the country anxiously await the results of their new Common Core–aligned assessments, there’s one thing I wish all policy makers understood: The reading comprehension tests are valid, reliable, and unfair.

Standards-based assessments mean very different things in reading and math. The math standards include mathematics content—they clearly specify what math knowledge and skills students are supposed to master in each grade. That is not true in reading. The English language arts and literacy standards only specify the skills students are to master. They implore schools to build broad knowledge, but other than a few foundational texts in high school, they don’t indicate what knowledge students need to learn.

In brief, reading comprehension tests primarily assess decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and knowledge. A child who answers a question wrong might be struggling with decoding, or might be a fluent reader who lacks knowledge of the topic in the passage.

Reading comprehension is widely misunderstood as a skill that depends on applying strategies like finding the main idea (assuming fluent decoding). Cognitive science (and common sense) has established that comprehension actually depends on knowledge and vocabulary. If you know about dinosaurs, you can read about them. If you don’t know about a topic and haven’t learned vocabulary related to that topic, you will have to learn about it before comprehending a text on it (e.g., “Chirality plays a fundamental part in the activity of biological molecules and broad classes of chemical reactions, but detecting and quantifying it remains challenging. The spectroscopic methods of choice are usually circular dichroism…”).

If the standards specified what topics children should read about in each grade—and thus what topics may appear in the passages on the reading comprehension tests—then aligned assessments would be better measures of both how the students are progressing and the quality of the instruction they received. Because the standards offer no indication of which topics ought to be studied and thus no indication of which topics might be tested, the assessments are very blunt measures of students’ progress and teachers’ abilities. They are valid and reliable—they do indicate students’ general reading comprehension ability—but they conflate what’s been learned inside and outside school. They’re unfair.

That’s why reading comprehension scores are so strongly correlated with socioeconomic status and so difficult to improve. Comprehension depends on knowledge and vocabulary, but the topics on the test are unpredictable. So, the only way to be well prepared is to have very broad knowledge and a massive vocabulary. From birth, some children are in vocabulary- and knowledge-rich homes, while others are not. Making matters worse, only some children have access to high-quality early childhood education programs and K–12 schools.

Life is unfair, but these tests need not be. States could specify what topics are to be taught across subject areas in each grade and they could mandate that the passages on the reading comprehension assessments draw from those specified topics. In short, states could work toward knowledge equality.


Shutterstock Image
Teach broad knowledge and test what’s been taught. Is that really too much to ask? (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

8 comments on “Valid, Reliable, and Unfair”

  1. 1
    Diana Senechal on August 7, 2015

    Lisa, I agree with you on the whole. A few thoughts:

    Why not drop reading comprehension tests entirely? Have tests in the individual subjects but stop testing reading as though it were a subject in itself.

    Then again, there’s something to be said for learning to make sense of a text you don’t fully understand. Maybe there should be tests of *grammar* comprehension.

    Take the sentences you quoted: “Chirality plays a fundamental part in the activity of biological molecules and broad classes of chemical reactions, but detecting and quantifying it remains challenging. The spectroscopic methods of choice are usually circular dichroism…”

    When I first read it, I didn’t know what “chirality” was, but I gathered that it could be detected and measured by means of “circular dichroism,” whatever that might be. I also gathered that chirality was both important and elusive. In other words, by observing the grammatical relations of the words, I formed a preliminary map of their relations. (It’s possible that I would revise this map as I read further.)

    Students should gain extensive practice in this kind of analysis–but it’s a far cry from the “reading strategies” that are usually taught. It requires looking closely at the structure of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and so on.

    So maybe there should be subject-specific tests and a separate grammar comprehension test–which would intentionally include passages on unfamiliar or even imaginary topics.

  2. 2
    Peter on August 8, 2015

    After two years of exposure to the new tests language, your vocabulary specifically, is critical to performing well on the math sections. Very few questions ask you to simply ‘solve for x;’ I joke with students, although to them it isn’t funny, that every question is a word problem!

    I have to adjust every activity and assessment to reflect the language demands of the tests, which means as a math teacher I’m also teaching language arts. The frustration with Common Core math that seems to exist among teachers comes not from unfamiliarity with the standards, but from recognizing what they must do to implement these standards. You can’t just dole out homework and pass out worksheets; you now have a new offensive coordinator, and you have to learn a new playbook.

  3. 3
    Vilma on September 15, 2015

    Lisa, I agree with you that reading comprehension tests are valid, reliable, and unfair. I am an ESL teacher who works in a school where 60% students are English Language Learners. Background knowledge plays a big part in a reading comprehension. Many ELLs come to school with cultural and educational experiences that are very different from their classmates. Yet, they are expected to take standardized state tests after on year of learning a new language. That is just unfair! First of all, how can you compare the their test scores with the native English speakers? Second,as I witnessed, it is emotionally traumatizing for students to take tests that they don’t understand. Image yourself, going to live in China and having to take standardized tests, that native Chinese students are taking, only having one year of Chinese language instruction. That is just cruel!
    Only multiple measures and authentic assessments can truly show what students learned.

  4. 4
    Maya Hashisho on July 19, 2017

    I would share with you some strategies that may help in having more fair assessment:
    Virtual environment: students are presented to a problem and they are asked to formulate a hypothesis and develop a procedure and then they test it virtually. After that, they have to write a report to describe their findings and make recommendations. (Silva E., 2009, p.633).
    KWL: were students write what they know about a specific topic, what they want to learn and then- after finishing from the lesson- they write what they early learned.
    As Jay Mctighe said, students in the same class would have different backgrounds, some would master a concept, others barely understand, others have misconceptions and others have no idea about it. Then importance behind the KWL strategy is in collecting information about the different background levels about a specific topic in a classroom to plan for the instructions that meet the diverse learners.
    Portfolio: it “is a collection of tangible products that provides evidence of a student’s efforts, progress and achievements. This type of formative assessment is also a collection of information about teacher’s practices. Good portfolios also reflect student behavior” (Henson, 2015, p.319). So, the portfolio is a good strategy to keep track and reflect to improve students’ performance and behavior and teachers” practices.
    A good resource about assessment that I would recommend is a paper issued by The Higher Education Academy under the title Different Forms of Assessment. This paper discusses different kinds of assessment- examination, essays, portfolios, project work, work based learning, reviews and annotated bibliographies, self and peer assessment and group work- with advantages, disadvantages, ways of improving and some important notes about each kind.
    Henson, K.T. (2015). Curriculum planning: integrating multiculturalism, constructivism, and education reform (e-reader version).Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press

    Higher Education Academy. (N.A). Different forms of assessment. United Kingdom. Retrieved from

  5. 5
    Chanel Gregory on November 19, 2017

    When I became a part of this profession I promised myself that I would never teach a test. I would teach humility, compassion, empathy, discipline, intrinsic motivation, and even feminism, but never the test! Now, after teaching a state tested content area for two years I have totally put my foot in my mouth. My school is title 1 and has an array of challenges. I have never worked anywhere where the conversation is blatantly about data and the test. “The only way to be well prepared is to have very broad knowledge and a massive vocabulary.” is the most honest quotation that I have read on this subject matter. The test is geared towards those students who arrive with a certain understanding of the world. It is unfortunately, the biggest stressor to conceptualize how much students don’t actually know being millennial and under-exposure.

  6. 6
    TeacherLeader on May 22, 2018

    Having a classroom that consists of a large ESOL (English as a second language) and low-income population, I see first-hand that the assessments are not always a true test of their reading and comprehension knowledge. The reason behind this is that a student may have shown that they are having difficulty within a text when in reality they lack the background knowledge on the subject to correctly apply meaning to be able to utilize their foundational skills throughout the text. The more exposure we can allow our students to have to both fiction and non-fiction texts, the more background knowledge they can attain to correctly apply it to an assessment.
    As I have taken or implemented the current assessments that our state is using I have seen very little cultural equity to allow all students to apply their various background knowledge. As we work towards a culturally responsive country, it is important that we incorporate this not only into our classrooms but also into our assessments.

  7. 7
    Rebecca91 on November 14, 2018

    Having taught in K-2nd and having a large ESOL population in my class this year, I have experienced the challenge of teachings and testing reading comprehension and skills to young children. Especially at this age, the students can have very important interpretations of a text, particularly fiction text. For example, this week, we are teaching authors purpose of the informational text and asking students to determine if the author’s purpose is to answer a question, describe, or explain the process. At the training for this unit, us educators had a difficult time identifying the author’s purpose of the same text we expected our students work with. We came to the conclusion, as teachers, that as long as students could explain their reasoning, their answer should be accepted. If we really want to test to comprehension and understanding, we must step away from expecting all students to find the “right” answer when it comes to analyzing a text, and teach them how to explain what they think and why. Being able to support their answer with reasoning and evidence is a much better indicator of understanding than trying to make them see the answer we want them to see.

  8. 8
    Jennifer on February 12, 2019

    I have taught in several school districts across the country. I have found that Fairfax County does the best at aligning their knowledge base across grade levels. However, they still struggle with how to teach reading. Reading, decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension make up language arts which is indeed a worthy topic of study.

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