Education Researcher Says Difficulty Level of High School Reading Alarmingly Low
Sandra Stotsky, holder of the Twenty-First Century Chair in Teacher Quality in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, says American high school students do not read challenging books, whether they are assigned by their teachers or chosen for leisure reading. Her essay, titled “What Should Kids Be Reading,” appears in a 2012 report, "What Kids Are Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students in American Schools," published by Renaissance Learning, an educational technology company.
In addition to her essay, Stotsky recently completed reports of two surveys on the major titles assigned in standard and honors classes by English teachers in grades 9, 10 and 11 and how they approach literary study. She found the results of both surveys indicated that the high school literature curriculum is incoherent and undemanding across the country as well as in Arkansas.
Stotsky points out that the average reading level of the 40 most-frequently read books by students in grades 9 through 12 is 5.3 – slightly above a fifth-grade level – based on the responses of almost 400,000 students compiled by Renaissance Learning's Accelerated Reader program. Some examples of popular books written at a fifth-grade level include Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Twilight, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies. Four years ago, in Renaissance Learning’s inaugural report, the average reading level of the books most often read by these students was 6.1, suggesting a sharp decline in just a few years.
A particular book’s reading level is determined by a readability formula developed by Renaissance Learning. Readability formulas typically contain a measure of vocabulary difficulty such as average word length, number of syllables per word, or number of words outside a list of common words — and a measure of sentence complexity, such as sentence or clause length.
Stotsky compares the Renaissance Learning survey to national test scores in reading that also show a steady decline over the past 20 years. The average reading score on the SAT for the high school class of 2011 was 497 – the lowest average on record. At least part of the decline in the average might be attributed to the broader number and greater diversity of students who are taking the SAT, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“Students on average don’t read as much as they used to,” Stotsky said. “[There are] too many distractions available – especially TV and video games. Also, the reading levels of the books and textbooks they are assigned in school have been regularly declining for decades.”
For the 2012 report, Renaissance Learning asked school librarians across the nation to browse through a list of 800 books in their school libraries and make recommendations for each grade level. The top 25 Librarians' Picks for high school students had an average reading level between fourth and fifth grade.
“Why the librarians were choosing books with such low reading levels for high school students I don’t know,” Stotsky said. “They do not appear to have high academic expectations for these students.”
The American public school system, Stotsky says, is obligated to create educated citizens by grade 12. She feels that the system must increasingly challenge students in every subject they take, including the literature curriculum. Assigning books with low reading levels to upper-grade students is not conducive to this goal, even if the books have mature interest levels.
Familiarizing high school students with difficult or complex literary prose (whether fiction or nonfiction) could benefit students in the future when they are confronted with difficult language while doing their taxes, buying a car or learning about proposed bills at city council meetings.
Stotsky says parents and members of the community need to get involved and support the need for a more challenging curriculum. They also need to make sure their kids are doing their homework.
“Students have to do more reading on their own,” she said. “More and more students have been increasingly unwilling to do homework – which involves reading on one’s own at home – and teachers have had vastly diminished authority to assign and expect homework to be done. They also do not get the support they need from parents themselves.”
The entire Renaissance Learning report is available at:http://www.renlearn.com/whatkidsarereading/