One reason that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is important and promising is that it focuses on reading. By the same token, one reason that NCLB sometimes distorts education for the worse is that it focuses on reading. The paradox arises from the fact that our schools do not yet fully understand what they need to do to raise reading scores. Many have accepted that phonics is best taught systematically. That's a plus. But goaded by the new law, many schools are intensively doing counterproductive things like strategy exercises and test prep that can not significantly improve reading comprehension.
Reading is the key to most academic achievement. Hence the emphasis of NCLB is welcome, as is its insistence on accountability through student tests. For, despite the chorus of complaints about standard reading tests, they are very reliable: they correlate highly with each other, and they accurately measure real-world reading ability.
The negative, unintended consequences of NCLB have emerged, not so much from the law itself but from the failure of our schools of education to instruct teachers and administrators in the true nature of reading achievement. Anxious educators have turned elementary schools into test-prep factories. In California, for example, the state has mandated that students spend at least 150 minutes each day on reading in the early grades. A great deal of this time is spent on trivial tales and on constantly repeated content-poor exercises in "classifying" and "finding the main idea." The desperate response of the schools to test pressure has been to excise history, science, and the arts and replace them with still more such exercises in reading. This is a futile strategy since reading achievement depends on broad knowledge of history, science, and the arts. The dull exercises in "comprehension strategies," which have been shown to be largely useless, take up great stretches of time in all the reading programs. Hence the small initial rise in reading scores yielded by these intense, misguided efforts will level off to everyone's disappointment. Reader, you first read that prediction here!
There is a way to avoid this self-defeating consequence of focusing on "reading." Within the long stretches of time allocated to reading, schools should start teaching a solid, cumulative curriculum that replaces the time now being devoted to trivial content and fruitless comprehension exercises. This approach to reading would spend long, coherent stretches of time on such topics as the early civil rights movement, the biology of farming, the nature of magnetism, and the geography of Africa.
Under this new sort of reading instruction (which is really very old) students would not be prepped for reading tests per se because, beyond learning how to take tests in general, there is no way you can specially prep for a reading test. If strategic test prep worked, our students' scores would now be a lot better than they are. No, the way to prep for a reading test is to gain broad knowledge. The classroom tests we give our students should be tests of the coherent knowledge they are being taught. Giving them that kind of test semester after semester will gradually raise their scores on standard reading tests. In time it will raise them dramatically. In fact, there is no other way of raising those reading scores dramatically.