This morning in The New York Times, E.D. Hirsch has a commentary on the SAT scores, which showed a drop from last year of three points in reading and two points in writing. More students took the exam last time (because more students aim to go to college right after graduation), leading some commentators to downplay the decline, treating it as a reflection of a more diverse group of test-takers, not as a general decline in verbal skills. As Hirsch notes in a longer version of his editorial (found here), however, the SAT trend reflects the trend for NAEP scores in the last four decades. Also, people who attribute the slide to demographic factors, specifically, poverty levels, overlook the “huge drop in verbal scores across socioeconomic groups in the 1970s,” Hirsch writes.
The main reason for it, he contends, was the loss of a “content-rich elementary school experience,” which was replaced by a “content-light, skills-based, test-centered approach.” What the new curriculum did was diminish the amount of knowledge students acquired in the early grades, which in turn gave them a diminished sense of the “gist” of many texts assigned to them later on. They learned less about “human and natural worlds,” Hirsch argues, so that when they came upon textbooks in subsequent grades, they lacked the background familiarity that would enable them to handle the more difficult vocabulary and rhetoric.
I have personal experience of the premise that a little background knowledge enables one to comprehend a new text more easily. I sometimes do test item review for different organizations that make up standardized tests such as the MCAT and GMAT, and I’m on the GRE Literature Exam committee. In cases in which I review an item set containing one passage and 10 multiple-choice questions on it, if I have some knowledge about the subject, my review is much, much easier. I don’t have to work so hard to discern implications and assumptions. If I don’t know anything about the topic, it can be a struggle. I may know the meaning of every word in the passage and the questions, but they don’t always hang together.
The difference for me and for students, Hirsch says, is not a matter of vocabulary; hence, simple classroom exercises in vocabulary-building don’t much help. Remember that most word-learning takes place informally, absorbed from the surrounding environment (which is why a text-heavy and TV-light household is so important to toddlers). Or, students figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words in a text because they recognize enough of the surrounding words plus the general gist of the text.
What SAT and other verbal test trends indicate, then, is that we need more historical, cultural, artistic, and scientific material in the early grades—such as the Core Knowledge curriculum, found here.