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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Professor Hill on High-Stakes Reading Tests

The increasing reliance of our educational system on standardized tests has precipitated a national debate. This debate, however, has proceeded with little attention to the tests themselves.

Clifford Hill

Clifford Hill.

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Children and Reading Tests (Ablex Publishing), by Clifford Hill, the Arthur I. Gates Professor of Language and Education, and Eric Larsen, Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies, investigates the restricted model of literacy used to assess children's reading comprehension and comes to the conclusion that "reading tests for young children are so flawed in design and so detrimental to classroom practice that their use should be discontinued."

In an interview about the text, Hill said, "Our job in this book was to get in touch with kids and show their real thinking processes in reading tests. The book is filled with interviews, various kinds of experiments, with a strong emphasis on cultural diversity. The kids are celebrated here, their voices, their thinking."

Hill added, "The problem with reading tests is that they use such a restricted model of reading that it's not something you want to encourage in the classroom. Once high-stakes testing is started with young children there's endless coaching that goes on. Before you know it the whole school system is caught up in a lot of mindless work, which, in my opinion, is not reading. Reading is a much more complex activity than what is represented on tests."

"Assessment is inevitable," Hill said. "The question is how you do it. There are really good alternatives to testing. Essentially what you do is try to develop some larger model where, instead of kids just reading tiny little fragments, they read holistic material, complete stories, for example. And then you develop a series of tasks such as retelling the story, asking factual questions and inferential questions."

"We have experiential questions, where we have kids relate a story to their own lives. We have a much more expanded model of comprehension. And we can score it. In other words, the assessment is much closer to teaching, where what you want to assess is not only can a kid do something, but if he can't do it, can he take new information to help him do it."

Hill supports a portfolio component in assessing a child's work. "We have the kids making story books and by the end of the year we have a cumulative portfolio."

Hill contends that the way out of the "testing bind" may be through computer technology. He has just received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement to study whether technology can open up opportunities for culturally diverse students to display their knowledge and skills more effectively than in print media. "We want to see how we can use technology to shift the assessment paradigm. By moving literacy education much closer to the real world we can develop skills that kids actually need in order to be citizens of the world."

"Now in this new project," Hill said, "I'll be working with the College Board and its Pacesetter Program, which is nationwide. The program tries to recruit culturally diverse kids who have academic promise. We're going to be developing assessment based on technology, which we feel will play to the strengths of cultural diversity."

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