We will all be illiterate soon

Dec 22, 2014 · 11 min read


In Virginia, at the end of each academic year, we run students through a gauntlet of tests that we call the SOL (the Standards of Learning). Third graders take the third grade tests, fourth graders take the fourth grade tests, and so on, until kids reach middle and high school where proliferating electives mean that end-of-course tests begin to replace grade-level ones.

It all seems fairly intuitive: test the kids, measure their performances, find the pass rates for your teachers at each grade-level and school. A sixth-grader, after all, ought to do well on a sixth grade test.

But here’s the catch. At least in reading, schools and testing companies have been changing what it means to be on-grade-level from year to year. But how?

First, we must understand that schools’ tests are produced and marketed by commercial firms. Private companies like Pearson and Scholastic wield unconscionable powers of vendor lock-in, in public education. It’s not uncommon for school systems to buy products like leveled reading books, so-called “interventions,” curricula, electronic gradebooks, and student information management systems from the very companies that sell them tests. The resultant interoperability of these systems helps drive the sorting of our kids. Our kids’ test results drive the market for more Pearson and Scholastic products. We have legislated and acculturated ourselves to consumerist purchasing and sorting practices.

Next, it’s important to remember that reading levels are fairly arbitrary things. They’re social inventions. We didn’t have them once upon a time. They generally don’t account for growth without more context.

Most importantly, all of our tests reward privilege — and privileged kids generally don’t have much trouble scoring at or above grade level. Schools use tests to answer questions that inherently favor the privileged, like this: ‘Based on what we know about already successful readers, how should we judge the struggling ones?’ A better, more ethically sound question goes something like this: ‘How do make tests and schools that help all kids access everything we do (including reading), regardless of how well they read or perform on tests right now?’

And although we should know that reading levels are arbitrary and favor the privileged, we codify and enshrine them every chance we get. We hire think-tanks and consultants sympathetic to testing and the data it generates to write our curricula. We buy ‘leveled’ textbooks and tests. We make school so dependent on scores that to question those scores is to question schooling, in general, and that is something we are not yet prepared to do. We have an idea of school in our heads — that it’s something to be endured, like a particularly onerous rite of passage, so of course it should be bad. Of course some kids should do well while others fail. Of course desks should be in rows, mean teachers should get their comeuppance, goofy teachers should make us laugh without realizing they’re the joke, and hard-as-nails principals should all have hearts of gold. We teach and learn in a madhouse that is at once a grimy factory floor, a saccharine after-school special, and a finishing school for institutional bias and control. We accept sharply divisive social structures and professional practices in schools because we have never been invited (nor have we meaningfully invited ourselves) to imagine and create them as anything else. In politics, at the movies, on TV — everywhere we look schools are the same. There’s little critical understanding of what schools could be, of how schools are sadly, inherently harmful, or of how indebted our schools are to the corporate and political interests that depend on things like ‘reading levels’ to maintain branding and control.

Moreover, we don’t stop at the one test. We use ‘multiple reading measures’ instead. At the surface level, that sounds like a good idea. We should assess students in many different ways to really understand each of them as an individual learner. But — as a system and in practice — we typically use multiple reading tests so that we can take turns avoiding and assigning blame. At every school in which I’ve worked (four schools across two divisions, all very different from one another), we’ve given at least two different reading tests each year. The first is usually called a ‘reading inventory,’ and it gives us ‘Lexile’ scores. Lexiles® are proprietary. A company owns the algorithms used to assess them. We give Lexile tests three times a year to chart growth. We also crosswalk Lexile scores to SOL performances to find predictor scores and cut-offs that give us an idea of how our kids will do on the SOL. When kids show Lexile growth, but fail the SOL, we can say, ‘Look at their growth!’ At the same time, our supervisors look at the SOL results and say, ‘But your kids failed the test. You must still be doing something wrong.’

Finally — and most insidiously — the SOL can be rewritten each year, changing the complexity of the tests. This lets us — or the interests we are beholden to — manufacture success and failure. Sometimes we do it for more ‘rigor.’ Sometimes we do it so that companies can field-test new products and technologies on our kids through tests we purchase from them. And I really can’t tell you more. I can’t even discuss a student’s performance with her parents in any meaningful way. If I look at a test item while a student is taking the test, I could lose my license. If I talk about the test with anyone, I could lose my license, too. I sign a paper that says I understand all of this weeks before I actually give any tests.

I cannot be clearer: these tests are designed to disempower schools and to convince us that we see and do during the school year is not what we have seen and done. It’s not a bad thing to want to make sure no child is “left behind” at school, but that is not what these tests do, despite all the double-speak we’ve heard about public education throughout its history in our nation.

Buy why does this really matter? Life goes on. School goes on. The kids on kid shows and the teens in teen movies go to school again and again and again. You can Netflix it.

It matters because schools are destroying literacy and imperiling our society more and more each day.

At the start of the 2012–2013 school year, my middle school English department colleagues and I got new Lexile cut-off scores that (we were told) our kids would have to reach in order to stand a chance of passing their next SOL tests. When we looked at the scores, we saw that the new middle-school cut-off matched what had been defined, the year before, as a 10th-grade reading level. Yes, we were told, that’s right, but the 8th grade reading test is now more rigorous because it’s written at a 10th grade Lexile.

So we worked hard. We got a lot of our kids to reach that new Lexile cut-off score by the end of the year. Then we took our tests and we did not do well at all. Kids who easily met the new Lexile cut-off scores failed the SOL. Kids who passed previous tests failed. In one year, we saw the definition of 8th grade literacy change twice — once because of Lexile-based rigor and then again because something new and unclear happened on the test.

We have created a public education system designed to assess our students and teachers on measures we perpetually keep just out of reach, so that the most successful students, teachers, and schools have nothing to worry about while the least successful among us must worry constantly about whether we’re smart or not, under review or not, employed or not — worth something or not. We demand that the people we fail define self-worth as judged by us. Other kinds of literacy (or even last year’s literacy) simply need not apply.

With reading tests like this that at once erase meaningful, sustainable definitions of literacy and assure the privileged that they are the literate ones (whatever that may mean), we are creating a society that has no idea, generally, how people really learn or how we can learn despite our reading levels. We fetishize and gate-keep reading and writing, and behind the visible gates we’re building invisible ones. In the meantime, the privileged ‘literate,’ assured of their success, fail to see that they, too, are being cut off in the middle. On one side, the powerful keep them sated, at bay, entertained and provoked to look down on their fellows. On the other side, the disadvantaged, whose life experiences might help the broad middle question the ‘experts’ who run their lives, are held back by social structures like school as we have conceived it, and by the institutional prejudices those places breed. The institution here is not just school itself, but the white, middle class that has become its benchmark.

We are reinforcing a society in which the distant, powerful, and moneyed call the shots, in which the privileged middle classes believe they have power without knowing how, why, or what power is, and in which the disadvantaged, who understand all of this best of all, are cut off from the rest of society by tests — formal and informal — that say no matter what you’ve accomplished, you are not us. It’s gates and moving goalposts all the way down.

Those of us in schools, who live and work between the powerful and disadvantaged, have a special responsibility to cooperate in building communities instead of walls, to resist sorting mechanisms, and to teach the world as it is rather than as it’s portrayed in school media — both the materials we’re told to use in schools and the messages TV and cinema send about schools.

Otherwise, we will all be illiterate soon. We’ll continue building a system that assigns us our illiteracies at birth and reinforces them throughout our educations, careers, and civic lives, all in order to maintain the status quo.

Part Two: THE TEST

On the flip side, perhaps we should give serious consideration to becoming illiterate. Few of us recite epic poems anymore, but life goes on. What would it mean to advance society in all sorts of ways — culturally, technologically, in social justice — without our reliance on slow-moving print media for both freedom and control? Could those of us without official power disrupt the system by creating a functional, ‘illiterate’ society first?

Let’s take a quick break and look at all the things that I don’t mean here.

I don’t mean that you can’t measure reading ability or growth.
I don’t mean that reading isn’t valuable for learning.
I don’t mean that we should stop teaching reading today.
I don’t mean that illiteracy, as we traditionally know it, is good.

What I mean is this:

Part of what keeps us so blind the inequities around us is a dependency on an educational system that ‘teaches’ almost exclusively through the printed word. As a result of this nearsightedness, our schools have — directly and indirectly — produced a class of politicians, policy-makers, and elites that see no problem in sorting people according to how well they perform the traditional academic work our schools so clearly struggle to teach them. Our schools struggle to teach disadvantaged students not because they can’t learn, but because we are biased, because we buy and use materials and assessment tools that reinforce our biases, and because we are content to work in a system with an ever-devolving notion of (print) literacy.

When people say we would have better schools if teachers did a better job, they miss the point. Teachers do an excellent job of doing what the system asks them to do. If we assessed teachers on how well they teach their assigned lessons, using their assigned texts, towards the taking of their assigned tests, we’d have to agree that our teachers do a wonderful job. That they do all of this and still don’t have the moving-goalpost test scores a politically-motivated, federal law from the 1990s tells us they should have is not a teacher problem. That they don’t have passion for a dispassionate machine isn’t a teacher problem. It is a system problem. It is a societal problem. It is an us problem. Only we don’t know it because, again, we will all be illiterate soon.

It might be true that, if left to its own devices, the teaching profession would keep struggling to teach disadvantaged students by conventional means. Traditional instruction is a horribly prejudiced thing. However, it might also be true that we have more teachers teaching more traditionally today not because they don’t have any ideas about how to do things differently, but because everything about the teaching profession, from teacher training to assessment, is geared towards a high-stakes testing that can only sustain its level of frenzy by emptying all meaning out of teaching and learning that does not result in passing tests geared toward readily manipulable reading levels.

Therefore, I believe that we should immediately (as in centuries ago) shift from a test-driven, reading-level-defined school culture to one that values teaching and learning in an interdisciplinary way, taking advantage of common-sense, inspiring connections among the arts, the humanities, math, science, and technology. We need schools — or new spaces — that acknowledge and feed off those connections instead of denying they exist through scheduling and sorting. We need more open environments for inquiry, discovery, and invention, in which content isn’t lost, but located in situ — inside the puzzles, problems, and delights we encounter each day. We need learning spaces that expand our definition of literacy to foster the curiosity and confidence necessary to cultural problem-solving across time, space, and media.

We need schools concerned about the now, the near future, and our far future among the stars. We need schools that believe expertise comes from a broader range of activities than than being still and staying quiet in the presence of authority. We need schools at once silly and serious enough to embrace and export wildly intersecting contextual, gestural, musical, and even ‘emojical’ modes of communication.

Mostly, we need schools that help us see things as they are and could be. We need schools that don’t erase the value of what students and teachers do with tests scored inside the corporate black box. We need schools that help us find worth within the classroom setting instead of assigning us arbitrary values. We need schools that open their campuses to community. We need schools that don’t insist that what we’ve seen and done isn’t what we’ve seen and done. We need schools that can hurry up and acknowledge what we already know — that we have never acted in everyone’s best interest.

This isn’t an essay on tearing down the walls. This isn’t a call for an overnight revolution. This isn’t even my hope that things will change.

It’s a confession of my failures. It’s an indictment of the system’s unwillingness to serve the many instead of the few. It’s an acknowledgment of the people who are out there doing things differently.


And when I think about the future, I don’t think about that magical day in which all schools will have 100% pass rates on all tests. I don’t think of immediately looming American dystopias, either. Instead, I think about deep time, the long now, and the end. I think about my parents, my wife, my kids, my students, Blood Child, No Country for Old Men, Interstellar, and House of Suns. I think about Dyson Spheres. I hope that if I dream enough out loud for my children and students, I can do my small part in perpetuating a tribe of resolute wanderers who find the alternative — stopping — too horrible and immoral to bear.

When I think about the far future, I think about caring for others in the face of dying planets and suns, and about the kinds of wordless understandings and cooperation that we’ll have to maintain to partner with one another across incomprehensible distances, using technologies opaque to us and effortlessly transparent to our cosmic babies. I think that our present conception of literacy, for all the best reasons, will ultimately and rightfully be an impoverished one — or the root of a great and branching tree.

And though it seems at once a big thing for schooling to let go of power — to loosen its grip on a narrowly-defined literacy and a people being squeezed of life and meaning — it also seems like such a cosmically little thing to me, as just one teacher, that I wish I could give away so much more. Culpability and responsibility are only difficult to own so long as we insist on staying blind to the gifts they offer us — to readers’ inexhaustible capacity for change.


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    I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.