What Do American Kids Read after Five Years of Common Core?*
December 5, 2015
Not much at their grade level, it seems. Nor do they seem to be reading enough of the kind of material that will develop college-level reading and vocabulary skills. Two independent sources of information help us to understand why American students continue to decline in their command of the basic subject in the curriculum. This is despite the brave words uttered by governors and commissioners of education when Common Core’s standards in mathematics and English language arts were adopted in 2010 by state boards of education, mostly without a question, and in many cases before the standards were written or completed. They also help us to understand what might be done to reverse the decline.
How do we know there is a decline in reading? It is suggested by the scores on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) grade 8 reading tests. http://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2015/#?grade=4
Can the decline be related to the implementation of Common Core’s ELA standards? Yes, according to Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution, who undertook an analysis of both the decline in grade 8 NAEP reading as well as the plateau in grade 4 NAEP reading by looking at teacher-reported changes in the content of the English language arts (ELA) curriculum since Common Core. See the report here: http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/brown-center-chalkboard/posts/2015/11/24-common-core-instruction-loveless and Education Week’s account here: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2015/11/fiction_no_longer_dominating_reading_instruction_naep_analysis.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-TW
As Loveless points out, teachers report shifting away from literary texts to what are called “informational” texts in response to the demands of the Common Core ELA standards writers for an increase in “informational” reading, as well as to their division of reading standards at all grade levels into about 50% for informational reading and 50% for “literature.” In Loveless’s words, the curriculum has moved “from the dominance of fiction over nonfiction to near parity in emphasis.”
While this shift may not be the cause (or even a cause) of the plateau in grade 4 reading and decline in grade 8 reading, it is linked to Common Core. It raises questions that might have been explored six years ago when Common Core’s ELA standards writers told English teachers to teach more “informational” reading despite the lack of historical or empirical evidence that such a shift would better prepare students for “college and career” than the customary balance of about 80% drama, fiction, and poetry and 20% nonfiction (biographies, essays, and speeches) in the secondary English curriculum. Apparently, the Common Core ELA writers did not know that secondary English teachers have rarely if ever taught “informational” reading, since “information” has always been taught in other subjects in the curriculum and is not what English teachers have studied or continue to study in undergraduate coursework as English or English education majors. It is not clear what Common Core’s ELA writers really did and do know about the secondary English curriculum since neither David Coleman nor Susan Pimentel has ever taught in K-12 or above.
We learn that American students are reading at low levels of reading difficulty from recent editions of an annual report issued by the Wisconsin-based company that sells Accelerated Reader 360 (AR or AR 360). This program, in thousands of schools (school libraries or individual classrooms), provides data on what K-12 students in their program read, as well as a short comprehension quiz for the books and “nonfiction articles” they read. It may not be an inclusive list (students may well read books and newspaper/journal articles they do not take a quiz on or report reading), but it is so far the best and largest data base we have.
The 2016 edition is based on data for 9.8 million students in grades 1–12 from 31,327 U.S. schools “who read over 334 million books and nonfiction articles during the 2014–2015 school year.” http://doc.renlearn.com/KMNet/R004101202GH426A.pdf The 2015 report is based on book-reading only (“more than 9.8 million students in grades 1–12 who read more than 330 million books during the 2013–2014 school year, and are from 31,633 schools, spanning all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia”).
The 2015 report noted that “the number of students reading books within the grade bands established by Common Core falls precipitously as grade level increases.” What seems to account for the decline? One reason may be, as the 2015 report suggested, that students simply read less challenging works than they once read. As noted in Figure 6 on p. 43 of the 2016 report, in grades 2–5, between 81% and 98% of students independently read at least one book in or above their Common Core-recommended “text complexity” grade band. In grades 6–8, these rates fall to between 24% and 32%. In high school, they drop further to between 7% and 14%. “Beyond grade 5, few students read books within their text complexity grade bands.”
In the 2015 report, the average difficulty level of books read peaks at 5.2 in grade 12 (Table A1, p. 51).” To judge by an essay in the 2013 AR report, this number indicates a significant decline over the 20th century in the difficulty level of the top titles in high school. Using the readability formula developed by this Wisconsin-based company (ATOS for Books), the essay reports that the average reading level of assigned high school texts in a 1907 study by George Tanner was 9.0, followed by 9.1 in a 1923 study by Sara Hudelson. The average reading level was successively lower in all subsequent surveys: 8.2 in Scarvia Anderson’s 1964 survey, 7.2 in Arthur Applebee’s 1989 survey, 6.7 in Sandra Stotsky et al.’s 2010 survey, and 6.2 in the 2012 AR survey of top titles read or assigned.
In the 2016 report, the average complexity level (i.e., reading difficulty level) of the top 25 texts read by the 95,000 grade 11 students in the AR data base is 5.6, and 6.5 by the over 70,000 grade 12 students. This might at first blush seem like the beginning of a reversal of the decline. But the 2016 report introduced a new wrinkle. Books are one kind of reading and “nonfiction articles” are another. And the distance between the level of the books read by high school students and the level of their college textbooks is still enormous, even though the reading level of the “nonfiction articles” students read is higher than the level of the books they read. The average ATOS level of the top 25 “nonfiction articles” read by grade 11 students (the ATOS for Books formula was adapted for short selections) was an impressive 9.7, and by grade 12 students 9.5.
But, as the 2016 report cautions, students exiting high school are typically reading books in the grades 5–6 range, “which is on par with the level of typical fiction best sellers of around 5.7.” Thus, as the report notes, their book choices are still about two grade levels below the demands of books commonly assigned to incoming college freshman as summer/fall reading (7.3) and nonfiction best sellers (7.6). Worse yet, the reading levels of college textbooks (13.8) are quite a bit more advanced than what many high school students choose or are assigned to read (AR’s data base cannot yet distinguish between the two categories).
In the context of two independent sources (the Brookings and AR reports) suggesting that American students are reading fewer and less challenging literary texts than before, several important questions need to be explored:
1. What is the quality of the “informational” or nonfiction articles now added to the AR data base (our only systematic source of information on the nonfiction article reading now taking place)?
2. Why do these “nonfiction articles” get on average higher grade-level ratings than the books students read (which are mostly fiction)?
3. What are the characteristics of high school-level literary texts (e.g., books with ratings above 9.0), which seem to have almost disappeared from the English curriculum?
We begin by exploring differences between literary texts and “informational” texts. The key element is their vocabulary because we know from 100 years of reading research that knowledge of the meanings of words is the key element in reading comprehension. However, we do not know how strong readers develop their large vocabulary. Researchers have concluded that good readers learn most new words in context (but not by using context—a very different statement) and that there is no one method teachers should use to teach vocabulary. http://www.readingrockets.org/article/teaching-vocabulary
It is possible that a crucial condition for learning new words is continuous prose reading, as with an Austen or Dickens novel or a work of historical nonfiction (poems typically use a smaller and often monosyllabic vocabulary). Continuous prose reading involves reading about the same people or events across a long series of pages written at about the same level of vocabulary and sentence structure. It requires concentration (especially when characters have different names depending on their relationships to other characters), but a good plot or exciting true story keeps readers moving along. This kind of reading is very different from the stop-and-start reading of a series of “nonfiction” articles. The reading level of the vocabulary and sentence structure in each article may be similar to those in a well-written work of fiction or nonfiction (or even higher), but students presented each week with a completely new topic, set of key words, and writing style in a short piece of writing may be overwhelmed. (There is no research on this issue.)
It is difficult to retain the meaning of constantly changing key words over a long period of time (changing because the topics are completely unrelated), especially in an English class which by definition does not teach any body of “information” as in a traditional science class. (Nor are English teachers licensed to teach any body of information.) Use of these kinds of articles in a curriculum does not lead to the cumulative learning that would take place from a sequence of learning activities for intellectual objectives (not skills), each related in different ways to preceding activities. Specific technical terms probably get learned from reading them over and over in a well-written textbook on one subject (and using them in some way). But a literate vocabulary is likely acquired from reading exciting tales (e.g., Sherlock Holmes stories) or a coherent series of literary works as in chronological survey courses in American or British literature, not from using a word list, word wall, dictionary, or context. Such words are in, for example, A Tale of Two Cities (9.7). http://web.suffieldacademy.org/english/english4h/c.d.voc.html While most are unnecessary for understanding a technical article, they appear in other works written by educated writers.
Dickens novels were once read by most high school students and are now hardly read at all in high schools in the AR 360 program. In fact, the only literary texts now in the top 50 titles for grades 9 to 12 with a rating of 9.0 or higher are rarely assigned or read, according to their frequency ratings, and were written before WWII (e.g., Austin, Conrad, Dickens, Hawthorne, and Shakespeare). The only European writers with high school-level ratings left are Kafka and Verne.
In contrast, the “nonfiction articles” are short, contemporary, and with key words that differ from article to article to address a variety of topics. Unless these articles are related in substantive ways to a literary work the English teacher has assigned all students for study, they constitute fragmented reading and likely lead to little learning. For example, the five most popular nonfiction articles from the Accelerated Reader 360 Collection read by over 122,000 tenth graders are as follows:
Title (ATOS™ level) Source Topic Skill area
1 Bad Behavior on Social Media Can Cost Recruits (9.0) AP Science Author’s Purpose
2 Facebook’s Privacy Update: Five Things to Know (9.4) AP Culture Main Idea and Details
3 NSA Spying on Virtual Worlds, Online Games (11.5) AP Culture Author’s Purpose
4 Monkeys Take Selfies, Sparking Copyright Dispute (9.9) AP Education Argumentation
5 Are Ants Smarter Than Google? (5.5) Youngzine Culture Compare and Contrast
To judge by the information given for each one, teachers have likely chosen them for “informational” reading instruction in order to address the “skill area” they are told it addresses. The reading levels may be about as high as a Dickens novel because these short articles must present quickly a heavy load of key words related to their topic—unlike nonfiction books where key vocabulary is spread out over many pages and readers have many opportunities to absorb their meanings in context. But one cannot discern the literary works for which these article might have served as “context texts” if in fact they were selected as the context for any literary work. See the report by Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky, issued in 2012, for a description of “context texts” as promoted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). http://pioneerinstitute.org/education/new-study-suggests-remedies-for-common-core-literature-deficit/).
Keep in mind that the audience for these articles (and radio broadcasts by NPR) is not high school students but literate adults, who may read closely or skim for the point of an article—depending on idiosyncratic interest. They are mostly examples of journalism, targeted to busy readers. And the structure of these pieces fits a journalistic mode of writing, not the kind of paragraph that English teachers are desperately trying to encourage in high school students (a paragraph with a controlling idea, as well as complete sentences related to that idea, not quotations from interviewees). Moreover, if students are also given the pictures embedded in the original articles, or the tape recordings for the scripts of the NPR radio broadcasts, then measures of reading comprehension (short quizzes) applied to these articles are confounded.
Common Core’s ELA writers did not seem to know that complex literary texts better prepare students for college than even complex non-literary texts. They clearly did not know that NAEP in no way makes recommendations for the content of the English/reading curriculum at any grade level. (It simply recommends the percentage of types of passages to be used for assessment purposes only—and says so.) In fact, it remains a mystery why their misinformed curriculum and pedagogical recommendations have not been examined by the country’s most prominent education researchers (who could have looked for supporting research and told the public it wasn’t there) or why completely clueless boards of education adopted Common Core’s ELA standards without a question about the changes in the K-12 curriculum they would lead to—and the possible consequences of these changes.
Recommendations for Educators and the Accelerated Reader 360 Collection
The company producing the AR 360 Collection is to be commended for trying to encourage high school-level readings for high school English classes. It does so by showing fiction and nonfiction book titles that would be suitable for grades 9/10 and 11/12 (pp. 50-51, 2016 edition). But the lists showing top titles for books through the grades indicate that, overall, students are assigned or choose to read very few nonfiction books. It’s unlikely that enough nonfiction book titles will be selected to address the “informational” quota that schools mistakenly think English and other classes must meet to get students “college and career ready.”
As English professor Mark Bauerlein suggests, instead of “contextualizing” historically important literary works with modern “informational” texts (e.g., “nonfiction articles” and other forms of journalism), why not “scaffold” them with authentic informational readings? For example, teachers might pair The Odyssey with short passages about ancient Greek history and social life, and “A Tale of Two Cities” with readings by several French Encyclopedists or Edmund Burke’s post-Revolutionary comments. Better yet, the lists of suitable literary titles for high school in the AR 360 Collection might point to several possible “context” texts for each title and provide teachers with online access to these informational readings. Such groupings would help teachers to construct a more coherent secondary literature curriculum than they now do, and strengthen students’ grasp of both the literary and non-literary works they are asked to read.
* I appreciate the review of an earlier draft of this essay by Eric Stickney, Director of Educational Research at Renaissance Learning.