High school students are assigned too many FIFTH-GRADE books

by Grace

High school students are assigned too many fifth-grade books, according to Sandra Stotsky in Minding the Campus.

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 grade 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.

Closing the performance gap means dumbing down the curriculum.

… 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 scores?…

… 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. 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 achievement.

The classics are simplified for high school students.

… Many high school students are now reading “classics” rewritten at a second-, third-, or fourth-grade level (e.g., 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), 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.

It is still unclear if the new Common Core Standards will raise reading levels.

We’ll find out when we can apply a readability formula (with a grade-level placement score) to the reading passages selected for the common tests. If most are well above the fifth-grade reading level from grade 7 on and the cut score by grade 10 or 11 reflects high school level reading, perhaps we can begin to turn the ship of state around 180 degrees, so to speak.

A warning about the future

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….

From the Lexile website, some key research findings:

  • The text complexity of K-12 textbooks has become increasingly “easier” over the last 50 years. The Common Core Standards quote research showing steep declines in average sentence length and vocabulary level in reading textbooks.
  • The text demands of college and careers have remained consistent or increased over the same time period. College students are expected to read complex text with greater independence than are high school students.
  • As a result, there is a significant gap between students’ reading abilities and the text demands of their postsecondary pursuits. Research shows that this gap is equal to a Lexile difference between grade 4 and grade 8 texts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Our local high school
I was pleasantly surprised by this reading list from a local freshman English class.  Here are most of the books they read this year as a class, along with their Lexile scores.

A Separate Peace  —  1110L
Animal Farm  —  1370L
Durable Goods  —  620L
Fahrenheit 451  —  890L
Night  —  570L
Romeo and Juliet  —  NP*
The Odyssey  —  Approx. 1000-1100L depending on translation
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar  —  1330L
To Kill a Mockingbird  —  870L

* NP = Non-Prose, not measured by Lexile

Related:  Lexile® measures and grade levels

9 Comments to “High school students are assigned too many FIFTH-GRADE books”

  1. Most of those books are pretty short. I suppose there’s an advantage to teaching more short classics, as opposed to fewer long classics.


  2. Bonnie, I don’t think that changing the text will get any more of the students to read. The CS students pride themselves on not “needing” to read the book. Many have never read anything technical (their reading instruction has been so focused on “literary understanding” that technical understanding has been ignored). I think that Mylène’s approach of teaching technical reading to her engineering students in an engineering context is essential. We can’t count on high school teachers doing it, so college teachers have to teach their students how to read technical material.


  3. “…and are majors largely because they like video games.”


    This is for you:



  4. Amy, I hadn’t noticed that many of those assigned books are short – interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were a factor in the teacher choosing them. Also, I really wonder how many students actually read them all cover to cover. With so much information online, I could see how tempting it is to skip the reading.


  5. “I was in KY in 9th grade, in a bad district. We read movie scripts, lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel songs, some pop fiction, the book I’m OK You’re OK (!), and spent 6 weeks learning to play bridge. About a third of the class couldn’t read.”

    Hoo boy! I wonder what that school assigns today, probably a better list.


  6. “The CS students pride themselves on not “needing” to read the book.”

    Don’t computer geeks resist reading any instructions, too? They just try to figure things out, and then if they hit a roadblock they’ll go to the instructions? Actually, I think that may be the MO of most young adults these days.


  7. “Don’t computer geeks resist reading any instructions, too? They just try to figure things out, and then if they hit a roadblock they’ll go to the instructions? Actually, I think that may be the MO of most young adults these days.”

    Hence the common internet piece of advice to RTFM.


    Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, RTFM dates back to the 1950s.


  8. The game design major at UCSC is very popular (one of my nieces is in it), but it has just as bad a gender ratio as the computer science major (which is already awful). Don’t look to computer games to fix the gender ratio problem!


  9. “The new hot things is using app development to hook students into CS. I do some of that myself.”

    I don’t know the field, but my husband does some hobby programming, and that sounds really good. We just had a very nice Kindle Fire windfall after I got one for Christmas and my husband started making some 99 cent apps for Amazon. The gold rush is probably over for now, but getting an $800 check from Amazon for a single month of royalties really puts a spring in the step!


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