Do Standardized Tests Kill Reading Skills?

As the number of students that take standardized tests rises, the number of parents criticizing these tests is also rising…

Nearly every standardized test includes a reading component. On the typical test, students are asked to read a small selection or excerpt and then answer a short series of multiple choice questions about the material. On the surface, this methodology makes sense: By having students read a selection and answer questions about it, we can determine their reading comprehension abilities in order to measure improvement.

But what if this method is killing the art of reading?

In a recent New York Times article, two parents argue that our standardized testing methods are disastrous to students. Their anger with standardized testing came on New Year’s Eve when they and some friends of theirs decided to take the practice English test that their son had been assigned for homework. Since 3 of the 4 parents were PhDs, they were pretty confident that they’d be able to pass the test with flying colors. Instead, they never made it past the first question:

The first section of the test comprised reading a short story and answering six multiple-choice questions about it. The story, concerning a pair of tiger siblings (an older sister named Tikki and a younger brother named Mista), was short and simple.

“Tikki eyed Mista, her little brother,” it began. ” ‘You sure don’t say much,’ she said.”

In the course of the story Tikki gets annoyed with her little brother because he can’t talk yet, attempts to get him interested in looking for bugs, then joins him in tearing bark off a log.

She tries to instruct him in this task, but discovers to her surprise that he is better at it than she is.

The first question asked, “What is this story mostly about?” and offered four choices:

A) what tigers like to eat

B) how tigers tear bark off logs

C) how two tigers get along

D) what tigers like to do

An intense literary debate followed the reading aloud of the story and this first question. In fact, we never got beyond it. One of our party felt that B, “how tigers tear bark off logs,” best summed up the action-oriented nature of the story, while another thought that C, “how two tigers get along,” best highlighted the interaction between the two animals.

The third felt that the story was mostly about sibling relations, and fretted that there was no E) none of the above.

And, predictably, the fourth felt that all the possible answers had merit: F), or all of the above.

The truth is, even such a banal story cannot be reduced to a single theme, nor should it be. By asking young students to spend time taking tests like this we are doing them a double disservice: first, by inflicting on them such mediocre literature, and second, by training them to read not for pleasure but to discover a predetermined answer to a (let’s not mince words) stupid question.

Clearly, the correct answer to the question is C) how two tigers get along – but I know this only because I am very familiar with the ways that standardized tests work. The truth is that most state standardized tests are better at testing students’ abilities to take tests than they are at testing student’s true academic strengths and weaknesses. And when it comes to teaching reading, standardized tests fail utterly.

Though you may not think of it in these terms, reading is an art. There are readers who are literate (those who can read and understand the words on a page) and there are readers who are artists (those who can read and understand what is between the lines). A literate reader gains little pleasure from books; to a literate reader, a book is nothing more than a vehicle for information, certainly not a great source of pleasure or intellectual challenge. An artistic reader, on the other hand, devours books for pleasure; to an artistic reader, a book can be re-read a dozen times and still reveal new ideas with every reading.

By introducing children to reading through the lens of ubiquitous standardized tests, we are killing the art of reading. Students are taught to read strictly for content – find the main idea, identify the main character, state the author’s purpose. In this way, reading becomes a rote chore when it should be a vehicle for discovery and interpretation. Instead, students should be taught to enjoy literature, to analyze its various meanings and influences, and to appreciate the nuances of the written world. The higher level thinking skills involved in artistic reading are invaluable in higher education and in the adult world, yet we stifle these more creative and elusive skills in favor of content-based assessments which strangle creativity and individual thought.

Since we cannot unilaterally limit the use of standardized tests, we must instead endeavor to provide students with both literate and artistic reading skills. Students must learn to take tests because, for good or ill, standardized tests are a fact of life. But students must also learn to enjoy reading and to read with an eye for analysis and interpretation, for that is how creative thinkers are made. To learn how to help your child become a better test taker, read our article on this important skill-set.

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