The New York Times, which has supported nation-wide school testing for years, is now pulling back a little. In a lead editorial here they are recognizing that all of the emphasis on testing may build so much opposition that the Common Core standards become untenable.
I taught high school English for 37 years, in public, private, and parochial schools across the country. Here is how I see it:
Kids are, quite simply, not reading very much. The number of avid readers coming through my classes seemed to decrease every year. And it is only through wide, voracious reading, that students acquire sophisticated reading and writing skills.
Consider what skills kids acquire through avid reading: an extensive, nuanced vocabulary; the ability to keep multiple plots and characters straight; a sensitivity to tone and theme; and the ability to skim or read in depth. Plus it’s impossible to read widely—in any genre—and not pick up bits of knowledge about history, psychology, science, and culture. After a childhood of extensive reading, these knowledge fragments coalesce into solid frames of reference that make all learning easier.
The problem with extensive test prep is that it discourages avid reading, by turning reading from an exciting pleasure into a tedious chore. It’s a perfect catch-22. By trying so assiduously to teach comprehension skills one assures that children will never acquire these skills.
We need to trust children more—to turn them loose in large libraries and tell them to choose books and read. We need to give class time for this, and we need to have teachers and other adults in the school modeling avid reading behavior.
Making kids, who dislike reading in the first place, spend hours every day picking apart complex paragraphs on dull subjects simply guarantees disaster. We might win a battle or two, but we will most assuredly lose the war.