Reading is More Than Just Test Scores (duh, right?)

"As a former Kindergarten teacher, I worry that too few children are getting that kind of transformational experience with reading today. My concern stems from our national conversations about why we teach reading, which shapes how we teach reading and thus students’ experiences with literacy."

  Me and my best friend/Kindergarten teammate, Ali. I also wore my Hermione robes as a teacher to school on "Favorite Book Character Day." My students didn't know who Hermione was so I abruptly stopped my planned lesson to teach them about the brightest witch of her age.

Me and my best friend/Kindergarten teammate, Ali. I also wore my Hermione robes as a teacher to school on "Favorite Book Character Day." My students didn't know who Hermione was so I abruptly stopped my planned lesson to teach them about the brightest witch of her age.

My parents call me a “voracious reader” – I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember. Whenever a new Harry Potter book would come out, I would lock myself in my room for two days straight, only accepting food and water, until I finished it entirely. Escaping to another world, seeing my lived experience reflected in another’s, being inspired to live with courage and fight against evil, (and not to mention, finding the strength to wear my Hermione robes to school despite persistent social ridicule)– this, to me, was the power of reading. Reading unlocked a world of possibility.

As a former Kindergarten teacher, I worry that too few children are getting that kind of transformational experience with reading today. My concern stems from our national conversations about why we teach reading, which shapes how we teach reading and thus students’ experiences with literacy.  I’ll explain in more detail, because it happened to me.

Even in Kindergarten, I was held accountable to high stakes reading assessments. These scores would determine my pay, my contract renewal, and even whether or not to shut down my school. Sometime around April when end of the year testing occurred, I would start to have stress nightmares about my students failing their reading tests. I was convinced that if my kiddos didn’t read at grade level by the end of the year, they’d be less likely to succeed in school later on, and thus less likely to flourish and lead a good life. I wrote about this previously here.  For days on end, I would wake up in a cold sweat, thinking that I had failed them. So, I ended up turning to the test as my guide for instruction.

  Me in Kindergarten. I was really cute. I was also really happy and engaged in my learning - despite writing my name backwards for some time. (I finally figured it out, by the way).

Me in Kindergarten. I was really cute. I was also really happy and engaged in my learning - despite writing my name backwards for some time. (I finally figured it out, by the way).

On a test, there is one right answer– one “valid” interpretation of a text. So, I would instruct students to all arrive at the “right” answer – even if it meant discouraging or devaluing their own “non-conventional” interpretations. I would also look for the vocabulary that they needed to know on these tests and send them home with flashcards to practice. Remember, I taught Kindergarten – these are five and six year old children I’m talking about here! To try and convince myself this was okay, I called my mom and asked her if my Kindergarten teacher sent home flashcards and homework. She said absolutely not – and acutely reminded me that I wrote my name backwards until first grade.

"As I continued to teach in this way, kids did better on the tests in the short term. Yet, they slowly lost their intrinsic motivation to read."

As I continued to teach in this way, kids did better on the tests in the short term. Yet, they slowly lost their intrinsic motivation to read. They believed that their job as a reader was to guess what I, the teacher, thought the right answer was. And in the long term, they were less likely to develop the broad range of literacy skills I actually hoped they would gain in order to flourish and lead good lives: empathy for diverse perspectives, critical thinking, communication of complex ideas, access to world and self-knowledge, and so much more.

Unfortunately, I see this trend in many of the schools that I work with. We quickly find ourselves in an environment where the ends justify the means – even if it leads to rote memorization, banal instruction, and limited peer-to-peer interaction. We’ve created a situation in which we focus on achieving our metrics and forget that how we teach literacy matters.  (This isn’t just confined to literacy – it’s affecting all content areas as well.)

"...we are neglecting to recognize that it is how literacy is taught – the experience and practice of reading, writing, and communicating itself – not the literacy scores, that will matter for students’ abilities to make meaning, communicate with others, and grapple with complexity in the long-term."

The “how” is important. When we frame the aims of literacy as an instrument for some schooling or extrinsic life outcome, be that test scores, high school graduation, or a “good job”, we are neglecting to recognize that it is how literacy is taught – the experience and practice of reading, writing, and communicating itself – not the literacy scores, that will matter for students’ abilities to make meaning, communicate with others, and grapple with complexity in the long-term. You don’t achieve these broader outcomes by focusing on the tests. You achieve these broader outcomes by facilitating meaningful discussions around rich and complex texts, allowing students to negotiate different interpretations of a text with classmates, and creating time and space for students to enjoy books of interest to them. And, not surprisingly, students who have exposure to this kind of literacy instruction do better on their tests.

To reiterate: A huge part of the problem is that we’ve shifted from thinking about why and how we teach literacy, to thinking about literacy instruction as a way to achieve instrumental aims (i.e. test scores). Read about why this is a harmful trend across the schooling system here.

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By teaching my students to pass the test, I undermined their ability to experience the beautiful possibility inherent in reading. Imagining them now, at the exact age when I fell in love with reading, I wonder if they will curl up in their bed, escape to Hogwarts, and explore a world where love and friendship triumph over injustice and hate. I’m worried they won’t.

"If we want students to engage in our democracy, be creative, collaborate, or think critically, then we have to stop focusing on test scores and start focusing on how we are instructing – the daily experiences and practices students are getting in school."

If we want students to engage in our democracy, be creative, collaborate, or think critically, then we have to stop focusing on test scores and start focusing on how we are instructing – the daily experiences and practices students are getting in school. It is only through practicing empathy, collaboration, and critical thinking now, that we can actually foster those dispositions in the future. At REENVISIONED, we are working to create a system in which students are empowered in schools. We believe that schools should be designed for flourishing lives and a thriving democratic society – which means that the way we “do” school, or instruct literacy, should start with these aims in mind.

Nicole HenselComment