High School Reading Levels Below College Ready

What Should Kids Be

By Sandra
Stotsky, University of Arkansas

Books above a sixth-grade reading level, for sure. According to Renaissance Learning’s
2012 report on the books read by almost 400,000 students in grades 9–12 in
2010–2011, the average reading level of the top 40 books is a little
above fifth grade
(5.3 to be exact). While 27 of the 40 books are UG (upper
in interest level), a fifth-grade reading level is obviously not high enough for college-level reading. Nor is it high enough for high
school-level reading, either, or for informed citizenship.

And yet, the demographic gaps haven’t closed. As Renaissance Learning’s 2011 report
indicated, the average reading level of books read by “struggling”
readers in grades 9–12 was 4.9.  Does the average book reading level for
all kids have to fall down to the fourth-grade level (it was 6.1 in Renaissance
Learning’s first report—in May 2008) before we can declare victory on that
egalitarian front and move on to what really matters—increasing everyone’s reading
This republic cannot flourish in the 21st century, no matter
how much time English or reading teachers spend teaching “21st century skills”
with texts deemed UG, if the bulk of our population is reading at or below
the fifth-grade level. 

In corroboration of this trend, national scores in reading have been moving downward for almost
20 years
. Average scores on the grade 12 NAEP reading tests were lower in
2009 than in 1992.2 In addition, average scores on the SAT fell in 2011, “with
the reading score for the high school class of 2011 falling three points to
497, the lowest on record,” and the writing score continuing its decline since
the writing test was introduced less than a decade ago. The latter trend is to
be expected. As research consistently shows, writing is dependent on
reading, and as average reading levels decline, so will writing

The average book reading levels for grades 9–12 on the new comparison tables in the 2012 report
are also very low, but some tables are more troubling than others. Let’s begin
with the most troubling one. According to the Top 25 Librarians’ Picks by Interest
Level, drawn from a list of 800 titles, librarians are recommending UG books
at fourth- to fifth-grade reading levels for high school students.
books are in school libraries and have quizzes based on them; otherwise they
wouldn’t have been on the list. But why are librarians and/ or teachers
encouraging kids in grades 9–12 to read books with such low reading levels
even if the books are designated UG? Readability formulas don’t tell us about
the literary aspects of a literary text, but they do provide objective measures
of vocabulary difficulty and sentence complexity. And why no serious
historical nonfiction? 

The list of most frequently read Graphic Novels raises a different issue. Many
high school students are now reading “classics” rewritten at a second-,
third-, or fourth-grade level
(e.g., Harriet Tubman and the Underground
, A Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet, The Time
, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jane Eyre, Dr. Jekyll
and Mr. Hyde
, The Scarlet Letter, and A Christmas Carol),
although only Romeo and Juliet is on the top 40 list for all high school
students. In a few years, struggling readers may be more familiar with the
“classics” as rewritten
than regular readers are with them as written. This
is perhaps the most appalling insight I had after looking over these lists. And
some graphic novels are now required reading in college-sponsored summer
programs for incoming freshmen
, according to a 2011 “Beach Book” report….




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