How To Create Accountability Systems that Build Knowledge and Increase Reading Ability

In an earlier blog entry, we encouraged state policy makers and educators to rethink what it takes to develop strong readers and the signals sent to schools by accountability measures. The bottom line: reading comprehension is a slow-growing plant, and the demand for rapid results on annual tests may be encouraging poor classroom practice—giving kids a sugar rush of test preparation, skills, and strategies when a well-rounded diet of knowledge and vocabulary is what’s really needed to grow good readers. Assessment and evaluation policy must ensure that these long-term investments in the building blocks of language growth are rewarded, not punished. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have the opportunity to do exactly that.

ednext-march16-ondiscio-hansel-readingStates also have the freedom to rethink teacher accountability. Because broad, general knowledge builds broad, general reading comprehension ability, school-wide accountability for reading makes far more sense than individual teacher accountability. Every school subject builds the knowledge base that contributes to a child’s reading comprehension ability (you need to know some science to make sense of a science text; history to make sense of a history text, etc.).

Take the comparatively simple task of teaching students to decode. At a minimum, it requires K–2 teachers. For students who struggle, special education teachers, speech pathologists, and others are often involved. Now consider building knowledge: Individual teacher accountability on a fourth-grade reading comprehension test, for instance, is unfair because children’s comprehension depends on what they’ve learned every year, in school and out (a reading test is a de facto test of background knowledge); it’s also unproductive because it lets the early-grade teachers off the hook if they don’t contribute by teaching the knowledge-building subjects. School-wide accountability for reading fosters teamwork.

Yet some teachers do not pull their weight, even when in a supportive school. Elliot Regenstein of the Ounce of Prevention Fund offers a sensible solution: an external inspectorate of teaching, particularly in the untested early grades. We fully agree with Regenstein that “great teaching in the early years is both rigorous in its content and fun for the kids in its delivery. It requires far more skill than many education leaders understand.” But that lack of understanding makes creating such an effective inspectorate very challenging. Let’s not end up like England, where, according to Daisy Christodoulou, the inspectorate system reinforces ineffective practices. States will have to be vigilant to create and sustain productive inspectorates—but the reward is likely to be well worth the effort.

Strong decoding instruction remains absolutely essential; states should ensure that students are mastering basic reading skills in the early grades. Here are three plans to complement important skills instruction by focusing on patiently investing in building knowledge and vocabulary across the curriculum and grade levels. Our first two suggestions work with existing reading comprehension assessments. The third takes advantage of ESSA’s “innovative assessment” pilot.

Option 1: Incentivize adoption of a knowledge-rich curriculum

ELA standards assume that schools have strong curricula in place across subjects, or encourage the adoption of them. It shouldn’t be left to chance. Every school—particularly those serving disadvantaged learners—should be encouraged to have a knowledge-rich curriculum that results in virtually all students scoring proficient in reading comprehension by the eighth grade. The nature of language growth is such that in earlier grades, scores will likely fluctuate (especially in high-poverty schools) as academic domains that have been taught may or may not appear on any particular reading test. By eighth grade, a well-rounded and well-implemented curriculum should result in all children having the broad knowledge they need to be proficient readers—just like most privileged kids do today.

Schools in which at least 85 percent of students in each subgroup are proficient should continue to do what’s working for their students. Schools that don’t meet that high bar might be required to:

• Participate in state-developed training on what makes great readers (i.e., systematic decoding instruction plus knowledge-rich lessons in science, history, geography, and the arts).
• Participate in state-developed training on how to create or adopt a specific, coherent, cumulative curriculum that results in students acquiring broad knowledge and a large vocabulary.
• Develop and implement such a curriculum, giving at least 150 minutes each week to science, 150 minutes each week to social studies, and sixty minutes each week to the arts in K–5.
• Develop and give curriculum-based interim reading comprehension assessments, such that the passages cover domains that have been taught (and thus hold more diagnostic value for teachers)

In districts with high student mobility rates, states should strongly encourage the adoption of a district-wide scope and sequence—a list of all the ideas, concepts, and topics taught in each subject and grade—developed with the participation of educators from schools in each district. This document would provide more guidance to teachers than is offered by standards alone, but it would be less fleshed out than a full curriculum—allowing each school to customize its lesson plans, student projects, etc. Students who change schools would not end up with gaps and repetitions in their learning, which function as roadblocks to reading comprehension.

For its lowest-performing schools, states should take even stronger action, such as requiring the curriculum to be submitted to the state for review, sending teams to observe instruction and provide coaching (per Regenstein’s inspectorate), developing a model curriculum (or placing online the curricula of high-performing schools), and/or offering professional development and courses to increase teachers’ knowledge of the domains they should be teaching. States should also examine how these low-performing elementary schools are teaching and assessing decoding. When remedial decoding instruction is needed, states should help schools devise interventions that avoid the common practice of pulling students out of science, social studies, and art classes.

Option 2: Create a state-wide model sequence

States that wish to strongly support building knowledge should convene educators to collaboratively develop a model grade-by-grade sequence of academic domains to teach in each grade. This model might be put online as a scaffold for schools as they develop their curricula, but it should not be mandatory. If policy makers need to be convinced there’s a demand for this, they should check out the number of downloads in their own states of materials developed for EngageNY. It’s been utilized as much by teachers outside the state as by the New York instructors it was built to serve.

The sequence should specify academic domains (like ancient Egypt or gravity) for every subject in each grade. Above all it should be coherent and cumulative, ensuring that all children have broad knowledge—including in art and music—by the end of eighth grade. Such a sequence would have two major benefits. First, teacher preparation and professional development could guarantee that all teachers have deep knowledge of the domains they are responsible for teaching. Second, children who change schools would have far less interruption in their education. Moving to a new neighborhood would no longer result in learning about the American Revolution twice while missing out on World War I (at present, there’s no guarantee that kids learn either). Even better, if a consortium of states created a model sequence, publishers could create slimmer, more focused textbooks that covered the domains in the sequence—not eight hundred pages on every topic a teacher might want to cover.

Option 3: Using the ESSA pilot provision, create a state-wide sequence and sequence-based reading tests

States interested in using ESSA to increase reading ability while also creating more coherent educational systems could follow this idea to its logical conclusion: creating state-wide sequences—and sequence-based reading comprehension assessments—for grades 3–8.

ESSA’s innovative assessment pilot encourages up to seven states to completely rethink the role of testing in teaching and learning. Sequence-based reading assessments would make the subject matter of the passages predictable (more like assessments in other subjects), reassuring teachers that if they teach the specified domains, their students will be optimally prepared to comprehend the passages they are to be tested on. There would be nothing to be gained from preparatory drills that don’t contribute to students’ knowledge base (and hence their comprehension ability).

The importance of this to the teaching profession cannot be overstated. With the sole exception of reading/ELA, every teacher—from third-grade math to AP U.S. History—knows the subject matter students must learn in order to prepare for a test. The “black box” nature of reading tests is actively undermining reading achievement, particularly among disadvantaged kids.

Ideally, sequence-based assessments would be cumulative. Instead of tests with reading passages that sample some topics only from the domains for that grade, they would sample from all of the domains in the current and prior grades. This mirrors the cumulative nature of building knowledge and places appropriate responsibility on K–2 teachers. Most importantly, it rewards consistent investment in knowledge and vocabulary—precisely what is missing from current practice (and dis-incentivized in current policy).

Cumulative, sequence-based reading comprehension assessments would incentivize all teachers to teach everything in the sequence. They would lead to broad knowledge, reduce the extent to which scores are a reflection of what has been learned at home, eliminate the temptation to spend time on test-prep drills, and provide a more accurate picture of the schools’ contribution to children’s performance.


These are but three ideas among many. But the overarching principal is what wise policy makers must keep in mind: Reading comprehension is not a skill that schools teach, it’s a condition they create. Accountability plans must ensure that every student gets the broad knowledge and vocabulary that remain the unacknowledged drivers of language proficiency. Higher standards simply cannot be met without them.

– Robert Pondiscio and Lisa Hansel

This first appeared on Flypaper

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College