Why No Information on what a College-Readiness Reading Level Is?

Jan 9, 2015 by

Sandra Stotsky

January 9, 2015

We know that average American students today are not ready for college from two different sources: (1) Renaissance Learning’s latest report on the average reading level of what students in 9-12 choose to read or are assigned to read, and (2) the average reading level of what colleges assign incoming freshmen to read.  From these two sources that are independent of each other, we learn that average American students read at about the grade 7 level.  Some high school students can read high school-level material, of course, while others are still reading at an elementary school level (even though they are in high school).

Where is the evidence?  According to Beach Books: 2013-2014, the top 7 books assigned as summer reading by 341 colleges are as follows (together with a reading level, if available, based on Renaissance Learning’s readability formula—http://www.arbookfind.com/UserType.aspx):

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (RL: 8.1)

This I Believe by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (RL: 7.1)

Wine to Water by Doc Hendley

Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan (RL: 6.1)

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen (RL: 7.0)

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (RL: 9.5)

The average reading level (RL) for the 5 of the top 7 books whose reading level is available is 7.56 (meaning grade 7, sixth month).

When we go deeper into the reading list, the reading level seems to get lower. Of the 53 most frequently mentioned titles listed in Beach Books: 2013-2014, the reading levels of 23 were available, with an average level of 6.8.  Based on the information available, it seems that our colleges are not demanding a college-level reading experience for incoming freshmen.  Nor are they sending a signal to the nation’s high schools that high school-level reading is needed for college readiness. Indeed, they seem to be suggesting that a middle school-level of reading is satisfactory, even though most college textbooks and adult literary works written before 1970 require mature reading skills.  However, our colleges can’t easily develop college-level reading skills if most students admitted to a post-secondary institution in this country have difficulty reading even high school-level textbooks.

As for Renaissance Learning’s own reports, its 2014 report showed that the average reading level (using its own readability formula—ATOS for Books) was 6.7 for the 25 most frequently read works of fiction by grade 12 students.  This number was higher than the average reading level for the top 25 informational texts read by grade 12 students.  The average reading levels at other high school grades were lower for both the top 25 works of fiction and informational texts, calculated separately.

So, to be charitable, it seems that the average American high school student going to college today reads at a 6th or 7th grade reading level.  This is hardly the reading level needed for college textbooks and other readings assigned in college. No wonder our community colleges spend a lot of money on remedial or developmental coursework for entering freshmen, especially in mathematics.

Although Common Core promised to make all students college-ready, it didn’t tell the state boards of education who bought into this idea (or the public at large) what reading level that meant.  Nor did any state board member (so far as we know) ask.  There is no information available from any source on what college readiness in reading means, from Common Core’s own documents or from the various test developers.  What can a high school student judged to be college-ready actually be able to read?

Nor has anyone supporting the Common Core initiative suggested why we should expect the Common Core project to raise the reading level of the average American high school student since Common Core’s reading “standards” are, for the most part, empty skill sets.  Moreover, there is nothing in its English language arts/reading document to indicate that students are to be assigned and taught to read more difficult material than whatever they are already reading—grade after grade—in a coherent reading curriculum.

Most media outlets in this country rarely discuss these reading issues at all.  They don’t find out the reading level of what students in our elementary, middle, and high school classes are reading and then ask how those reading levels can make students ready for college-level reading by grade 11. They rarely tell us the titles and authors of what they are reading so we can try to figure out ourselves if a curriculum addressing Common Core’s standards is really going to raise students’ reading levels. Unless the reading level is raised, “college ready” students won’t be able to read those textbooks and other reading materials in college, most if not all of which are written at the college level.

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    Teacher with a brain

    Given the calculations of reading level, I wonder whether it is necessary, or even desirable, to debate what a college reading level actually is or looks like? Meaning, I question whether you, I or anyone else wants to read texts at a “college level.”

    It seems to me that reading levels are useful up to a point. Elementary reading levels increase with vocabulary, sentence length and sentence structure. At some point along the way we can reach a level that is so dense with uncommon words, weighed down with long sentences and complex, difficult to follow structures, that reading ceases to be desirable. There is value in a straightforward presentation of content that is not constructed to confound most English users. It is possible to read content, contemplate the content and increase your knowledge while reading text constructed at more user friendly levels, like junior high.
    Another aspect of readability is the content itself. Clearly content that assumes a basic knowledge of a topic, is beyond the comprehension of one not schooled in the fundamentals of the topic.

    Additionally, reading is intimately connected with oral language. We are immersed in language, but is the content of much of the language we hear today sufficient to allow us to develop the vocabulary and complexity that transfers to reading in a positive manner? Reading is comprehending and once more, this is built upon oral language. Do we engage in oral discussion that develops complex and abstract thinking and reasoning so that our students will recognize this in text? The very higher order thinking “skills” that are essential to reading and understanding more complex texts have their foundation in our oral language.

    Our culture today has changed markedly from the culture of my youth. Too often families do not, for example, sit down to dinner together. People my age, particularly in white collar homes, sat down each evening to dine and engaged in dinner table conversations. Some families discussed current events and issues over dinner. This was normal, this fostered children who were exposed to vocabulary, concepts and ideas, along with opportunities to reason that transfer directly to the world of text.

    Assuming a child sleeps 10 hours per night, our youth enjoy about 5110 waking hours per year. Of those, 1080 are spent in school, about 20%. Public schools are charged with teaching an astonishing amount of material in that 1080 hours per year. For too many youngsters, the remaining 4030 waking hours offer little in the way of linguistic or conceptual stimulation.

    Our entire culture has shifted. My husband and I were lamenting the loss of Borders last night. Presumably the growth of Amazon is a significant factor in its demise. But consider what we have lost. When our adult children were school age, our family made fairly frequent trips to our local Borders, sometimes on Friday nights. In its heyday, this store offered musical performances in its cafe on Friday nights and other weekend days, author talks/signings, wonderful overstuffed furniture to sit and browse. The four of us might visit Borders on a Friday night, order a drink in the cafe, enjoy some music, browse the shelves, skimming and reading excerpts from selected books, perhaps even strike up a conversation with a stranger. After a couple of hours, or so, we would take our purchases to the counter (we never left empty handed), pay and return home eager to read our new books.

    Consider the opportunities we are losing as our culture morphs. Indeed, I appreciate aspects of the online era we have entered, but it comes at a price.

    Why, for example, is there so little discussion going back and forth here on this site? There is food for thought here, but we so infrequently engage and comment. Look around, is it really so surprising our students are alleged to be slipping in measures of reading comprehension and critical thinking? Where are the opportunities to engage with other minds in our fast-paced, entertainment oriented culture? Turn on the evening news, what passes for news in most cities?

    Look around, if there has been a decline, we share the responsibility.


  1. Sandra Stotsky, Ed.D. | UARK – DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION REFORM - […] Stotsky.  Blogs on Reading Levels and in Pioneer Institute,  January 8, […]

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