Friday, October 25, 2013

Could the Common Core Widen the Achievement Gap in Reading?

By ignoring the research on early childhood literacy, the designers of the CCSS for ELA may be putting at-risk children at even greater risk.

I just received a new book in the mail this week. I am still reading it, but I want to recommend it now to all who are interested in the issue of literacy instruction and the impact of recent government policies on teaching and learning. The book is Whose Knowledge Counts in Government Literacy Policies? Why Expertise Matters, edited by Kenneth Goodman, Robert Calfee and Yetta Goodman, published by Routledge. The book is a collection of essays by members of The Reading Hall of Fame, some of the top researchers in the literacy field.

The first essay I turned to was by Elfrieda Hiebert and Katie Van Sluys on the issue of text complexity. Text complexity is Standard 10 of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in ELA. I have addressed the issues related to text complexity in two previous posts here and here. I revisit the topic now due to an increased sense of urgency based on my reading of the Hiebert and Van Sluys article. Here is the bottom line: two key assertions in the CCSS explication of text complexity (CCSS, Appendix A) are not only false, but could cause irreparable harm to developing readers, especially those who are at-risk as they enter school.

Assertion 1:   K–12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century (CCSS, Appendix A, pg 2).

Assertion 2:   Readability standards must be realigned to achieve the goal of college and career readiness by raising the text levels in all grades beginning is second grade. This is the so called “stair step” model of realignment (CCSS, Appendix A, pg 8).

Assertion 1 is easily refuted by the evidence. Hiebert and Van Sluys say that “several [research studies] refute the idea that primary grade texts have been simplified” (page 147). Indeed there is evidence that readability in these primary grades has actually increased as literacy expectations have been pushed down into kindergarten over the last two decades. There is a text-complexity gap in middle and high school, but there are no studies that indicate boosting the text complexity of materials for second and third graders will improve their ability to read more complex text later. Perhaps failing to have one early childhood educator involved in the design of the CCSS led to this piece of misinformation.

Assertion 2 represents a failure to conceive of an alternate design to increasing readability standards. The authors of the CCSS reasoned (I must assume) that if we want kids reading more complex text by high school graduation, then we must have them reading more complex text at all grade levels beginning in second grade. Students are expected to march through higher and higher levels of text in a stair-step fashion. As Hiebert and Van Sluys point out, there is another way to think about this. Rather than a “stair-step” approach to increased readability levels, they recommend an "up-swinging curve" model. Students in the primary grades would work to achieve proficiency at the long established research supported pre-CCSS levels and after gaining this solid foundation in literacy, be prepared to work with more complex texts in middle and high school. Research has shown that students who reach pre-CCSS levels of literacy by the end of third grade are less likely to drop out of school. Aiming at a lower level than the CCSS is recommending will actually better prepare children for more challenging reading later on.

Who are the likely losers if the CCSS pushes teachers into driving higher readability level texts into the primary grades? You guessed it: at-risk children. Hiebert and Van Sluys say that these new standards will likely “neither help, nor hurt, those who come to school ready to read”, but they could make literacy achievement a “greater challenge for the very students who most depend on America’s public schools for their literacy instruction (pg 148).”

So, there we have it. Too slavish an adherence to the CCSS guidance on text complexity may actually widen the achievement gap. The first four years of school are critical to the development of eager, fluent and skillful readers. By ignoring the research on early childhood literacy, the designers of the CCSS for ELA may be putting at-risk children at even greater risk.