In an effort to be equitable, most current reading assessments are designed using texts that are likely to be unfamiliar to students ― what are known as “cold” reads. Since reading assessments are skills-based, focused on skills such as determining a main idea or analyzing point of view, this seems on the surface to make sense; if all students answer questions based on texts that they are likely to be unfamiliar with, then the focus can be on student mastery of said skills rather than on prior content knowledge. However, research over the last several years has increasingly shown that once students have mastered foundational reading skills, prior knowledge and vocabulary play an integral role in reading comprehension.
In her article, “Yes, There is Evidence That Building Knowledge Boosts Reading Comprehension,” author Natalie Wexler notes, “Among scientists who study the learning process, it’s well established that having prior knowledge of a topic has a strong positive effect on reading comprehension...There’s also evidence that scores on reading comprehension tests are highly correlated with general cultural knowledge" (Wexler, 2021). This is corroborated by Student Achievement Partners in their recent report, “Reading as Liberation―An Examination of the Research Base.” In this report, the authors reference data supporting the use of curricula designed specifically to build knowledge in classrooms. Although these curricula are fairly new to the market, they are “already starting to show improved student outcomes on standardized assessments" (Pimental & Liben, 2021).
Given the research, the use of unfamiliar texts is likely to have the opposite effect than the one intended, providing a potential advantage to students who have a breadth of prior knowledge about a variety of subjects while disadvantaging students who have yet to build a strong knowledge base ― typically those from historically marginalized populations.
One way to alleviate this disparity is to focus on building assessments aligned with high-quality curricula. This is the approach CenterPoint Education Solutions has taken to provide districts and schools with assessments aligned to these quality curricula, tapping into the knowledge students are building in the classroom to ensure greater equity and a closer alignment between what students learn and how that learning is assessed.
For example, CenterPoint’s EL curriculum-aligned interim assessments incorporate passages that tie directly to topics covered during instruction and assess standards taught in specific modules throughout the school year, allowing students to utilize their prior knowledge and thus supporting equity. CenterPoint worked closely with EL Education to ensure a tight alignment between instruction and assessment. Each assessment includes two literary and two informational passages, and at least 50% of the passages are “warm” reads, meaning that they are connected to topics covered in the curriculum. For example, EL Module 3 for grade 8 is about Voices of the Holocaust. CenterPoint’s corresponding EL curriculum-aligned interim assessment includes two literary passages set during the Holocaust focused on characters’ related experiences and conflicts. NWEA is currently studying the impact of warm reads on the achievement gap. Early indications are that warm reads provide a more equitable test taking experience, narrowing the gap.
Our latest project designing middle school interim assessments aligned with Core Knowledge curricula takes this concept a step further. All passages align with the ELA and/or Social Studies sections of the Core Knowledge Sequence, and approximately 25% of the passages will be “hot” reads, meaning test passages will be taken directly from texts students read in class. An example of this is a Robert Frost poem included in the grade 6 Core Knowledge Sequence that is also included on CenterPoint’s corresponding Core Knowledge curriculum-aligned assessment. The goal of assessing using texts students have been taught is to get an accurate gauge of students’ mastery of reading skills by utilizing the knowledge and vocabulary they have built in the classroom, making for a more equitable testing experience for all students.
A strong case has been made for content-rich ELA classrooms where students are able to build the background knowledge and vocabulary essential to foster reading comprehension. It is now time for assessments to support these content-rich classrooms by aligning to high-quality, content-rich curriculum so that all students have more equitable learning opportunities.
Wendi Anderson is the Director of Humanities Assessment Design and Development. She is responsible for leading the design, development, and implementation of CenterPoint's English language arts and literacy professional learning services. She works with educators across the country to support standards implementation and the use of quality classroom tools. CenterPoint Education Solutions is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting schools and districts in implementing coherent instructional models consisting of high-quality curriculum, tightly aligned assessments, and professional learning.
Pimentel, S., & Liben, M. (2021, February). Student Achievement Partners. Reading as liberation - An examination of the research base. https://achievethecore.org/page/3338/reading-as-liberation-an-examination-of-the-research-base.
Wexler, N. (2021, April 1). Yes, there is evidence that building knowledge boosts reading comprehension. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nataliewexler/2021/04/01/yes-there-is-evidence-that-building-knowledge-boosts-reading-comprehension/?sh=25b28122a412.