Monday, February 29, 2016

High School Reading - Challenging Kids with Challenging Texts

According to one group of public school critics, high school students are predominantly reading material at about a fifth grade level. If that is true, then the criticism of public education and failing literacy is certainly apt. However, the data reading appears at closer glance to be a considerable oversimplification.

Renaissance Learning has compiled an analysis of the reading lists for high schools across the nation, and the titles run from classics such as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird to contemporary young adult fiction such as the Hunger Games. From the list, Renaissance has declared the average reading level for high school choices to be 5.3, or fifth grade/third month. That is certainly disturbing.  The analysis tool for these rankings is the ATOS Readability formula, and it focuses on line length, word length, vocabulary difficulty, and other "qualities" which, of course, provide no context for the literary value, rhetorical strategies, historical allusions, and other elements that basically define literature.

I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the study - appreciating comments in the intro from Dan Gutman about students reading what they want. However, when I began to work my way through some of the rankings and saw Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies ranked at a 5th-grade level, the study quickly plummeted in credibility. Anyone who has done style and literary analysis of these works knows they are of great complexity, to the point that they are still worthy of graduate level analysis. Just take Mockingbird off the shelf, ask a fifth-grader to read the first three pages, and then begin a discussion. If the fifth grader actually identifies the allusions to the Battle of Hastings and correctly interprets the significance then .... then you have a fifth grader who is reading at a high school level.

It's not simply about line length and complexity of vocabulary. And any study that rests on that conclusion has no real business making statements about education. Now, I will assert that the Hunger Games is a really low level book - and probably fifth grade. And, I certainly hope no college prep kids are reading that in high school. But to rank it as the same quality in rigor as Mockingbird or Flies is downright absurd.

1 comment:

Greg Van Nest said...

As you correctly point out, these measure of reading levels are often absurd. Lexile, to name another commonly used metric, measures average sentence length and word frequency. Because of this, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone has a Lexile Level of 880 (, while Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises comes in at Lexile 610 (

Keep in mind that Common Core's recommendations for text Complexities are as follows:
Grade 2-3: Lexile 450-725
Grade 4-5: Lexile 645-845
Grade 6-8: Lexile 860-1010

I think we all can admit that the first Harry Potter book isn't really a middle school book, and neither did Hemingway write for primary school audiences.

Luckily, however, the Common Core documents do explain that text complexity is not just about Lexile. It is also defined by qualitative measures and reader and task considerations.

But we know that the Renaissance Star test or the MAP reading test--to name two frequently-used measures of student proficiencies--don't measure qualitative measures or reader and task considerations, which is why I find reports like the one you cite to be dubious.