The Worst Approach to Standardized Reading Tests

Teachers in my training sessions have reported that over 80% of their students do not get the reading score they would predict based on how well they read for class.  What’s the problem?  It’s simple—reading for school is systematically different from reading for a standardized reading test.  I contend that reading tests don’t just measure reading ability.  In fact, I believe that scores are largely determined by something else –something beyond reading comprehension and fluency.

What is that “something else”?  It is how well you can take a reading test.  Let me tell you a few stories.  Laela was a third grader with straight A’s all through school.  Her twin brother was also a very good student but not straight A’s.  Laela failed the Florida state reading exam near the end of the third grade by one point.  According to state law, she had to be retained while her twin brother moved on to fourth grade.  So, Laela had to attend summer school.  Then she failed the reading test a second time (and I have to think the pressure on this eight-year-old was, in part, to blame).  When school started in the fall, as a repeating third grader, she was allowed to take the test one last time.  Based on a referral from a local school board member, her mom reached out to me for help.  I spent two hours with Laela and her mom showing them how to take a reading test.  Mom practiced the strategies at home for a week and then they spent another hour with me the night before the test.  She passed by 35 points!  Because the principal thought Laela had cheated, she had to take the end-of fourth-grade reading test the next week, in early October of the fourth grade.  She passed the fourth grade reading test by 28 points!

Maggie was the valedictorian of her senior class.  Her first SAT reading score was in the low 600’s.  Before taking the test again, her parents had me tutor her for a couple hours.  Then she spent time practicing the strategies..  On her retake, she received a perfect score of 800.  Consequently, she received a full scholarship at a major, national university.

Josh was a hardworking junior with a solid B+ average.  However, when he took the PSAT, he only averaged 45% correct.  After just a few hours of instruction and several hours of practice, he averaged 85% correct.  That’s more like it.  Certainly, that performance is more in sync with what we would expect based on his grade point average.

What happened?  What did these three and tens of thousands of other students do differently on their next test day?  What did they learn?  Well, I sure didn’t teach them how to read!  I have no idea how to do that and I leave that to professional reading teachers.  I taught the students the “something else.”  It is that “something else” that stands between the score students deserve based on their reading ability and the one they get based on what the tests measure.  I think of it as a “promise-performance” gap.

Based on personal experiences, I know it is something the test writers don’t want parents, teachers, or students to know.  An SAT security official once told me I should quit teaching students how to take the test because I was ‘getting them into colleges they didn’t deserve.”  A Florida Department of Education testing staff member once sneaked into one of my training programs without paying.  Towards the end of the day, she announced to over 100 teachers in attendance that what I was doing was illegal and I should be arrested.  What “secrets” was I divulging?  It’s simple—I was talking about the “something else.”

Just what is the “something else?”  Simply put, it is how to take a reading test. Reading tests are more of a measure of how to take a reading test and that is why I contend they are not as valid as psychometricians would like to believe.  I ask test development companies, “Did I teach Laela, Maggie, and Josh how to read better in just a few hours or did I teach them “something else”?  Did the high school in Tallahassee improve from a 40% to a 75% passing rate on the state reading test in one year suddenly experience an explosion of better readers?  Did the high school in Tennessee go from the lowest to the highest ACT scores in the county hire a new faculty?  Did the elementary school in central Florida that raised its ranking from an F to an A in one year and then keep it there have a magic wand?  (When this school got another A the following year, the state accused the principal and faculty of cheating and held an inquiry with witnesses.  They were exonerated upon providing the evidence that they were teaching “something else.”)

So, what is this “something else?”  Generally, it is what I said earlier; it is “HOW to take a reading test.”  Before I retired, my training program for reading took about six hours and my new book, Becoming Test Savvy, explains it in detail.  The following are just two examples of what must be used on test day.

When taking a standardized reading test, most students read the passages like they would for school.  Students – you need to stop that.  It’s an open-book test and all the answers, by rule, must be based solely on the passage.  That means the passage is a cheat sheet.  Don’t memorize and learn the information in the passage like you do for school.    Identify four main characteristics of prose: the main idea, the passage’s organization, the author’s purpose, and the author’s point of view.  Then use them to come back to find supporting evidence in the passage/cheat sheet.  Doing so will save an enormous amount of time and raise your score.

Use the process of elimination for the answers.  It is a score-damaging strategy to justify keeping an answer which is what test-naïve students do.  Eliminating answers is by far more efficient and effective.  Otherwise, you could talk yourself into at least two answers for every question and you’ve probably had that experience.  Haven’t you noticed and complained about  at least two right answers for most questions?  Sure, you have.  That’s because you were trying to identify the “best” answer by rationalizing why you should keep answers.  Test-savvy students know to look for reasons to get rid of answers.  Don’t you determine the “best” new pair of shoes by eliminating the ones you don’t want?  That’s how you find the “best” pair.  Taking a reading test is the same.  Just learn the characteristics of right and wrong answers.  There are five of them.  For example, answers that add to the passage are wrong because they cannot be supported by the cheat sheet.  Using these characteristics is much faster and more accurate when searching for, identifying wrong answers, and picking the “best” answer.

There it is.  Those are just two of many examples of the “something else.”  Maggie was wasting time learning the details in the passages like she did for school that earned her valedictorian status.  She simply ran out of time and didn’t get to the last passage.  She was also falling for common test writer answer traps and explaining to herself why an answer could be correct.  Laela could answer almost every question correctly when she made up her own responses to the questions.  However, when she looked at the multiple-choice answers, she got trapped by the tricky wrong answers.  Josh had both problems: paying too much attention to learning the passages’ details and not recognizing and avoiding the test writer’s wrong-answer tricks and traps.  Those mistakes are all too common among test takers.  These errors can quickly and easily be identified and fixed with just a few hours of instruction, followed by practice.  Certainly, they and related issues are the reason so many students underperform on test day.

After 30 years of preparing students, I have certainly come to recognize and understand that teachers do a masterful job of teaching reading comprehension and fluency.  However, until students understand how to take a reading test, they will not get the scores they deserve.  The playing field is simply not level.

If you are interested in additional help for your child or students, I explain this process in further detail in my new book, Becoming Test Savvy.

As always, share my blog with a friend who also cares about standardized testing.  I look forward to hearing your, comments, experiences, and questions because they help me add new topics to my blog and podcast.  You can check out my podcast Be Test Savvy that I release each Sunday at 1:00pm Eastern Time.

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