Thursday, April 15, 2010

The giant text complexity challenge inside the new literacy standards

While reading demands in college, workforce training programs, and life in general have held steady or increased over the last half century, K–12 texts and reading tasks have actually declined in sophistication, leaving a serious gap between many high school seniors’ reading ability and the reading requirements they face after graduation.
That's from the draft Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies & Science, and more exactly from "Appendix A: Research Supporting Key Elements of the Standards."

To back up that important claim, the Appendix shares evidence from studies showing that:
  • Students who fall short of ACT's college readiness benchmarks have the greatest difficulty with the test items involving the most complex text.
  • K-12 reading assignments have become much less demanding in the last half-century, with an especially large drop-off in high school expectations.
  • College reading assignments have moved in the opposite direction, becoming a bit harder over the same fifty years.
  • High school teachers commonly give  students many kinds of support and coaching to help them figure out the material, but college teachers expect students to pull the knowledge from the text on their own, making the gap in practical ability even wider than the gap in the texts themselves.
Here's a single stunning sentence to remember:
Gary L. Williamson in 2004 found a 350L (Lexile) gap between the difficulty of end-of-high school and college texts—a gap equivalent to 1.5 standard deviations and more than the Lexile difference between grade 4 and grade 8 texts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). 
(Lexiles are a measure of reading difficulty, respected by educators I count on for insight and explained in further detail here.)

The draft standards aim to close that reading gap, with every grade aiming higher and the cumulative effect being teaching that equips every student to handle college-level complex text independently before graduation.

The draft pushes for that result in multiple ways.  For example:
  • Bar graphs for each grade show the proportion of student reading that should be at grade level andthe proportion that should push past that point to keep building stronger skills.  
  • "Exemplar" texts illustrate the kind of work students should be reading in each grade: schools don't need to use those exact books but will need to use material at least as challenging.
  • Though literary reading is still valued, explanatory and persuasive text gets heavy new emphasis--because those are the kinds of text most used in college and in modern workplaces.
  • Literacy in science and social studies gets direct attention for grades 6 through 12, as well as a place in the document title, pushing for coursework that builds background knowledge and systematic experience making sense of complex reading material in those fields.
I'm convinced: our students (and therefore our teachers) must rise to this new level of literacy expectation.  As we move into that effort, it is important to know that the bar is being raised far higher, and reaching that bar will be a major challenge of the coming years.

Sources: both the draft Standards and the research Appendix can be downloaded here.  Final editions are scheduled to be available in late May.

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