Are Comprehensive Reading Assessments Unfair? No Comprehension Without Prior Knowledge

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

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Reading comprehension (also known as close reading[1]; we use both terms interchangeably in this blog) is a high-stakes skill. After all, there are important consequences for whomever gets tested for it. For example, reading comprehension tests might impact getting a certificate or diploma, or might impact the choice for next level education, especially in schools / school systems that are streamed. Because reading comprehension is such a critical skill, we spend quite a lot of time and effort teaching and training it throughout our children’s school ‘career’. Parents even pay for expensive extra-curricular trainings to be more confident that their children will be successful in reading comprehension (i.e., score well on standardised reading comprehension tests) and everything that relates to it. This is somewhat understandable from a parents’ point of view. After all, their children are constantly tested for this skill, starting in early primary education (i.e., does my child read at grade level?) all the way through the final exams in secondary education including college entrance examinations and both for native language and any other language they’re learning in school.


The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)

SAT has a specific reading component. According to Wikipedia: The Reading Test of the SAT is made up of one section with 52 questions and a time limit of 65 minutes. All questions are multiple-choice and based on reading passages. Tables, graphs, and charts may accompany some passages, but no math is required to correctly answer the corresponding questions. There are five passages (up to two of which may be a pair of smaller passages) on the Reading Test and 10-11 questions per passage or passage pair. SAT Reading passages draw from three main fields: history, social studies, and science. Each SAT Reading Test always includes: one passage from U.S. or world literature; one passage from either a U.S. founding document or a related text; one passage about economics, psychology, sociology, or another social science; and, two science passages. Answers to all of the questions are based only on the content stated in or implied by the passage or passage pair.


Cito, the Dutch Central Institute for Test Development, is an organisation that develops and conducts exams as well as all kinds of other tests/assessments. In a way it’s very similar to the Educational Testing Service. On their website, Cito emphasises the importance of close reading. They state that close reading opens children’s eyes to the world. Being able to analyse what an author wants to tell, for whom, and with what purpose; are all essential skills…which form the foundation of all other subjects.

We may indeed conclude that reading comprehension is a critical skill for all children, there’s no doubt about it. But how do we help all children to be successful at it?

It sounds so simple: We provide children with a piece of text, they read it, and then answer various questions which can then tell us to what extent they’ve understood the content of that text. To be able to do this we train them in text analysis, text interpretation, and so forth and expect them to be able to close read. However, we need to ask ourselves: Is this approach really fair, objective, culture free, and does it provide equal opportunities for all children?

Back in 1968, David Ausubel wrote that what learners already know (their prior knowledge) is the most important factor that influences their learning. Determine the learner’s prior knowledge and instruct her/him accordingly, so says Ausubel. If this is true, then isn’t it odd that we hardly take the learner’s prior knowledge into account when testing reading comprehension skills?

Yes, children practice a lot with text comprehension in schools and close reading is part of many test/assessment and exam protocols. For example, knowledge platform Ensie (a Dutch Encyclopedia) explains it as follows: When it comes to close reading, the goal is to determine how a text is structured and what exactly the text is about – you need to pay attention to specific parts of the text. This definition suggests that close reading is a technical or instrumental skill. As if the only thing that children need to do is to follow a procedure. But is that so?

How can Ausubel’s claim that prior knowledge is the determining factor when it comes to the ability to comprehend and Ensie’s suggestion that close reading is a procedural skill be married? Luckily, evidence from research comes to the rescue here.

Two articles, one relatively old (from 1988) and one brand new (from 2019) – as well as many articles in between – clearly call the idea that close reading is a ‘procedure’ and the current way of teaching close reading into question.

In 1988, Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie published an interesting article. They studied the relation between reading skills and reading comprehension. More specifically, they studied how prior knowledge of a particular topic influences both what children comprehend and what they remember when they read a text on that topic. They compared students with a high and low ability for close reading (reading skills) and with high and low prior knowledge on the topic in the text.

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They divided a group of 64 junior high school students in four equally sized groups based on prior measured reading skills (high and low) as well as based on estimated prior knowledge (high and low) on a certain topic; in this case ‘baseball’.

Just to be clear; there were four different groups:

  1. Students who were strong readers and knew quite a lot about baseball.
  2. Students who were strong readers and knew relatively little about baseball.
  3. Students who were less strong readers and knew a lot about baseball.
  4. Students who were less strong readers and knew relatively little about baseball.

All of the participants in the study silently read an account of a half-inning of a baseball game. Next, they completed some tasks. In the first task, they had to non-verbally demonstrate the half-inning (as described in the text) on a board with movable wooden players[2]. Next, they had to explain out loud what was described in the text. Next, they had to summarise the game in writing and, finally, they had to sort a list of sentences that were in the text based on their importance.

The expectation / hypothesis was that Group 1 would do better than Group 2 which would do better than Group 3 with Group 4 bringing up the rear. It would be too much to discuss the results for all four measurements / tasks. However, the most striking result from all of the tests is that weak readers with relatively high prior knowledge on baseball did much better than strong readers with relatively little prior knowledge on baseball. In other words, text comprehension was very dependent on the amount of knowledge that a reader has with respect to the topic of the text. Even more important than reading skills!

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The second article by Tenaha O’Reilly, Zuowei Wang, and John Sabatini shows that students have trouble understanding the content of a text when they have insufficient prior knowledge of the topic of the text at hand. O’Reilly and colleagues studied 3,534 secondary school students at 37 schools in the US. The students first had to complete a multiple-choice test to determine their knowledge on the subject of the to-be-read text (i.e., ecosystems) as well as a vocabulary test (44 words) in which they had to indicate if a word was related to the topic of ‘ecosystems’.

After reading a sequence of texts on ecosystems, they completed a test with 34 items to measure the extent to which they had comprehended the texts. These items made use of the students’ ability to summarise what they had read, recognise opinions or incorrect information in relation to what they had read, and apply what they had read through broader reasoning about the content.

The results showed that there was a certain ‘achievement threshold’. Below this threshold there was hardly a correlation between prior knowledge and their comprehension of the text but above this threshold, the comprehension increased when their level of prior knowledge increased. In other words, children who knew more on ecosystems, scored higher on text comprehension.

Their findings emphasise the importance of prior knowledge for comprehending what is in a text. In an interview, O’Reilly said “If we can identify whether a given student does not have sufficient knowledge to comprehend a text, then teachers can provide background material — for example, knowledge maps — so that students have a context for the texts they are about to read”.

In our humble opinion, there is only one conclusion to be made, namely that the way we currently measure close reading is hardly objective, not culture free, and simply unfair. After all, what we do is that we assess text comprehension without considering prior knowledge. This means that students with a low test score mightn’t be weak readers at all! They might simply lack the prior knowledge to comprehend the text. Also, this prior knowledge can be culturally dependent. What is considered to be ‘general knowledge’ in one family (for example, a Dutch, British, or American family – and we even must wonder if a ‘typical Dutch, British, or American family’ exists these days, given that we have so many different cultures living together in these countries) is likely very different from what is considered general knowledge in other families, societies, and continents (as in ‘cultures’).

The current approach clearly disadvantages many students who might be considered ‘weak readers’ based on the a reading comprehension test, while in reality they could be perfectly good readers but without the appropriate level of prior knowledge to be able to comprehend the text in the assessment.

And so the circle is round. After all, Ausubel (1960) came up with the concept of the ‘advance organizer’- which can also be created in the format of a ‘knowledge map’ – as a way to provide students with the required prior knowledge to complete a task, such as a reading comprehension test.

References

Ausubel, D. P. (1960). The use of advance organizers in the learning and retention of meaningful verbal material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 51, 267-272.

Ausubel, D. P. (1968). Educational psychology. A cognitive view. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Recht, D. R., & Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80, 16-20.

O’Reilly, T., Wang, Z., & Sabatini, J. (2019, online). How much knowledge is too little? When a lack of knowledge becomes a barrier to comprehension. Psychological Science.

[1] Close reading is thoughtful, critical analysis of a text that focuses on significant details or patterns in order to develop a deep, precise understanding of the text’s form, craft, meanings, etc. It is a key requirement of the Common Core State Standards and directs the reader’s attention to the text itself. (Burke, B. (n.d.). A close look at close reading: Scaffolding Students with Complex Texts. Retrieved from https://nieonline.com/tbtimes/downloads/CCSS_reading.pdf)

[2] Students had to move wooden baseball ‘players’ (10 cm in height) on a 50X50cm wooden board (the playfield) to mimic the game as explained in the text.

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