High school students need to read challenging books to prepare for college and informed citizenship, writes Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas in response to to Renaissance Learning’s 2012 report. High school students’ top 40 books average a 5.3 (just about fifth grade) reading level, according to the company, which makes Accelerated Reader. That’s down from 6.1 in the 2008 report, notes Stotsky.
This republic cannot flourish in the 21st century, no matter how much time English or reading teachers spend teaching “21st century skills” . . . if the bulk of our population is reading at or below the fifth-grade level.
Accelerated Reader software quizzes students on their reading and awards points based on difficulty. The report doesn’t count books without a quiz. But AR now includes a very large number of books.
It’s not just that students choose easy books, Stotsky writes. According to the report, librarians are recommending books of interest to high school students that are written at the fourth- to fifth-grade level.
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 shows many high school students are reading “classics” reweritten at a second-, third- or fourth-grade level, Stotsky writes. Examples are: Harriet Tubman and the Underground
Railroad, A Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet, The Time Machine, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jane Eyre, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Scarlet Letter and A Christmas Carol.
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,” Stotsky fears.
Common Core Standards writer David Coleman also sees a problem: “If you examine the top 40 lists of what students are reading today in sixth–twelfth grade, you will find much of it is not complex enough to prepare them for the rigors of college and career.” The reports includes Common Core Standards’ “exemplars” of nonfiction and fiction books recommended at different grade levels.