Confusing Ignorance With Illiteracy
Tom Sticht – One of the major purposes of having people learn to read is so that they may be able to increase their knowledge about a subject. For instance, if you want to find out what someone knows about a subject, you might give them a simple multiple choice test in a written format, and then ask questions about the subject matter of interest.
But this confounds the assessment of the person’s knowledge about the subject with their ability to read.
Often in what are called reading tests, knowledge and reading skill are confounded. For instance, in a vocabulary test, it may be unclear whether a person does not know the meaning of a word, or the person lacks the word recognition skill to decode the word.
In the National Assessments of Educational Progress (NAEP), reading skills and knowledge assessment are confounded in tests of science, mathematics, or other content areas because the latter assessments are given largely using the printed language and require good reading skills which some students may not have. Generally there is no attempt to separately determine a student’s knowledge in the content area separately from the person’s ability to read in the content area in an unskilled or skilled manner.
In work for the U.S. Navy, colleagues and I developed a 45 hour reading development program to help sailors improve their reading ability while increasing their knowledge needed for upward mobility in their career progression. In this program, reading instruction was integrated with Navy career progression knowledge. In assessing learning outcomes in this course we considered both improvements in Navy career progression knowledge and increases in reading skill. We did this by developing two separate assessments.
The Navy Knowledge assessment presented questions about the career progression information taught in the course and required the personnel to answer the questions drawing upon the knowledge they had in their long term memories. The Navy Functional Reading assessment presented questions for answering, along with paragraphs of written information that contained the answers to the questions. The idea here was to find out how well the personnel could read the written language to increment whatever internal knowledge they had in long term memory stored in their brains, by extracting it from the external “long term memory” formed by the written passages. By comparing the Navy Knowledge and Navy Functional Reading assessment results in pre-and post-program assessments we could determine separately the extent to which personnel had increased their Navy knowledge as well as their reading skill for incrementing their long term knowledge store using an external knowledge store.
In additional work for the U.S. Navy we developed separate readability formula for determining how much general reading ability as measured by a standardized, normed reading test a person needed to be able to comprehend Navy material with 70 percent accuracy. We developed formulas for those with high and low prior knowledge about the Navy. We found that with low background Navy knowledge, a person needed a general reading ability of about the eleventh grade to comprehend with 70 percent accuracy. But highly knowledgeable personnel needed only a sixth grade level of general reading to comprehend Navy-related material with 70 percent accuracy. In this case, then, high levels of background knowledge substituted for some five grade levels of general reading ability.
The Armed Services have long understood the difference between general reading ability and specialized bodies of knowledge in developing their Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). This assessment battery assesses both general reading vocabulary and paragraph comprehension, but also includes assessments of specialized bodies of knowledge such as Auto and Shop, General Science, Electricity and Electronics, and others. When selecting people for service, lower general reading ability scores may be offset by higher scores in specialized bodies of knowledge.
The failure to attend to differences in knowledge and literacy is a problem for the National Assessments of Educational Progress and the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. It contributes to a serious underestimation of the intellectual abilities of America’s children, youth, and adults, and it leads to the egregious error of confusing ignorance with illiteracy.
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