An interesting Op Ed piece appeared in The New York Times today titled, Reading Test Dummies. The author is E. D. Hirsch Jr., who is best known for his work in the area of cultural literacy. Dr. Hirsch has written several books, his most recent being The Knowledge Deficit (2006). He also is the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, a non-profit research organization.

Hirsch prefaces his piece by pulling an Obama quote from a recent speech on education reform. Specifically, the one where the President calls for children to have the skill set to do more than just fill in bubbles on Scan-tron sheets. Hirsch then takes a minute to make a case that standardized tests aren’t all bad, but rather the U.S. educational system takes the wrong approach, indicating that children are often asked to read passages that are not “knowledge neutral” and given randomly to students with out a context.
Children are asked to read and then answer multiple-choice questions about such topics as taking a hike in the Appalachians even though they’ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.
The result, Hirsch argues, ends with teachers wasting valuable instruction time on teaching test taking skills, rather than teaching students specific content knowledge.

Teachers can’t prepare for the content of the tests and so they substitute practice exams and countless hours of instruction in comprehension strategies like “finding the main idea.” Yet despite this intensive test preparation, reading scores have paradoxically stagnated or declined in the later grades.

This is because the schools have imagined that reading is merely a “skill” that can be transferred from one passage to another, and that reading scores can be raised by having young students endlessly practice strategies on trivial stories. Tragic amounts of time have been wasted that could have been devoted to enhancing knowledge and vocabulary, which would actually raise reading comprehension scores.

Upon stating this case, Hirsch then proceeds to rally, not for the end of standardized tests and a more personalized learning experience for students, but rather for a standardized, core curriculum. That is, he takes the opportunity to push the agenda of his Core Knowledge Foundation. He states,

Better-defined standards in history, science, literature and the arts combined with knowledge-based reading tests would encourage the schools to conceive the whole course of study as a reading curriculum — exactly what a good knowledge-based curriculum should be.

I’m not sure that instituting a core curriculum will bring about the kind of educational reform that America’s public education system needs. My concern with Hirsch’s approach is that it could lead to the development of a set of standards that are too specific. To legislate “what kids need to know” does not seem like a responsible approach to educational reform. If we become too explicit about what students have to know at each grade level, aren’t we opening up the possibility of stifling our children’s creativity and interest in learning just as much as we are doing with standardized testing?