Friday, July 19, 2013

Text Complexity and the Common Core: A Close Reading, Part 1

Appendix A of the CCSS is intended to explain the concept of text complexity. Here is the first sentence.

            One of the key requirements of the Common Core State Standards
             for Reading is that all students must be able to comprehend texts
            of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school.

Now doesn't that statement just make you want to say, “Duh!” When has that not been a goal for all students? I personally have never heard a fifth grade teacher say, “I want my kids to be able to read like third graders by the end of the year.” We all want our students to be able to read increasingly complex text.

Appendix A goes on to argue for stepping up the complexity of texts that students are reading because current high school graduates are not college and career ready to read texts that they are required to read in college or the workplace. The problem the authors sight is that “K12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century (CCSS, Appendix A, pg 2).” At the same time text complexity has remained level or increased on the college and workplace level.

In order to address this issue, the authors of the CCSS in ELA (Coleman and Pimentel) have, in conjunction with the company that introduced the Lexile measurement, MetaMetrics, realigned the Lexile scale stair step fashion in increments moving down from what they have determined is the entry Lexile level for college freshmen (Lexile 1335).

A further problem, according to the authors, is that students are provided  “considerable scaffoldingassistance from teachers, class discussions, and the texts themselves (in such forms as summaries, glossaries, and other text features)with reading (CCSS, Appendix A, pg 3).” In college classrooms, they assert,  much more independence is required in more complex texts.

Let’s take a closer look at these assertions. When it comes to the difficulty of texts being dumbed downward, while true for high school text books, it is simply not true for K-3 reading materials, which have tended to get harder as greater expectations have been placed on early literacy (Hiebert, 2012). There is plenty of evidence to suggest that exiting third grade students reading at a Lexile level of 540L to 580L are successful in future grades. There is no evidence that the new level posited by the standards, 790L by the end of third grade, will lead to college and career success (Hiebert, 2012). This is an arbitrary number not supported by the research.

Hiebert’s analysis of the CCSS recommended Lexile levels in primary reading calls into question the entire scheme to up the Lexile levels across the board. If the 790L is unsupported and inadvisable as a benchmark for third grade, why should we believe that 980L is appropriate for 5th grade or 1155 for eighth grade? Where is the research supporting these designations? If these designations are used to design tests, how valid will the findings be?

The authors of the CCSS are also concerned with the considerable scaffolding students are provided with K-12, because this kind of scaffolding is not available on the college level. It is true, of course, that we want our students to become more and more independent in reading as they move through school. It is also true that as students are asked to read more and more challenging text, they need and deserve the scaffolding that skilled teachers provide. I wonder why the authors did not ask college professors why they do not provide appropriate scaffolding for their students when they give them difficult readings? Is the job of the K-12 teacher to compensate for the lack of appropriate instruction on the college level?

Based on this analysis, I have the following recommendations to make in the face of the CCSS on text complexity.

            1. Ask the authors of the CCSS to provide research that supports the changed Lexile scores at each level. The research must demonstrate that these are indeed the appropriate levels for students to achieve college and career readiness down the road. Until that research is provided, make no decisions             based on tests designed with these new standards as the model.
            2. For K-3 teachers and administrators, continue the focus on developing fluent,             comprehending readers in the 540L-580L Lexile range by the end of grade 3. This range is supported by research as appropriate for future reading success.
            3. Continue to provide appropriate scaffolding for students as they read challenging text and continue to provide easier texts where students can be successful independently.

Despite the views expressed here, the news is not all bleak from Appendix A of the CCSS. In Part 2 of this post, coming soon, I will look at how text complexity is defined and how this definition should empower teachers, if only teachers are allowed to use their knowledge of pedagogy, texts and children to apply what is recommended.