High School Reading Levels: Don’t Just Pay Attention To The Little Kids

Under 40% of twelfth grade students read at a “proficient” level, a grim verdict which has held steady since the National Association for Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal agency, started releasing a study called “Our Nation’s Report Card” in 1971.

There are two things that are worrisome about this: first, the low reading level. Second, that nothing has changed about it in over forty years.

Other sources back up the story. Even the ACT, responsible for giving tests to high schoolers intending to go to college, reported in 2013 that only about half of the 1.8 million students who take the exam (who are already a self-selected group) were ready for college-level reading. This finding is not new; reading levels reported by the ACT have been at at this level since at least 2002. Perhaps more concerningly, the ACT reports that “more students are on track to being ready for college-level reading in eighth and tenth grade than are actually ready by the time they reach twelfth grade.” Something is happening to them between early and late high school that stops growth.

One response to this concern might be to target students in lower grades - it is necessary to make sure that students are up-to-level from the beginning, so they never fall behind.

In fact, this has been the thrust of education policy for years. The Alliance for Excellence in Education reports that Congress has been committed to early reading instruction, and has invested several billions of dollars in K-3 Literacy programs in recent years. However, investment for grades 4-12 - mainly in the form of the Striving Readers pilot program - has been much less (only a relatively paltry $35 million, nationally, for 2008).

It is true that elementary school students’ reading levels have increased slightly over the years; 9-year-olds scores have inched up 13 points on the 500 point test from 1972 to 2012, according to the same NAEP Report that showed no progress in 12th grader’s reading levels.

But this is exactly the point; if elementary schoolers have improved their reading levels, but high schoolers haven’t, what has been accomplished? Or, in the words of Catherine Snow, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education,

“It is clear that getting third graders to read at grade level is an important and challenging task, and one that needs ongoing attention from researchers, teacher educators, teachers, and parents. But many excellent third-grade readers will falter or fail in later-grade academic tasks if the teaching of reading is neglected in the middle and secondary grades.”

The problem with the strategy of targeting elementary schoolers is that the techniques needed for a fourth grader to reach grade level are not the same as the skills needed to reach proficiency as a high school reader. While phonetics and word recognition are the primary skills of early literacy, the skills need for secondary school literacy are “more complex, more embedded in subject matters and more multiply determined.” Plus, as Snow points out, kindergarteners are generally more motivated and interested in learning than 12th graders, so it is easier to teach them.

In many ways, the proof is in the pudding: a survey of 2.6 million students across the country found that the average reading level of the top 40 books read by high school students was a 5.3. That is, most high schoolers are reading books that are at just barely above a fifth grade level. The top three books read by 11th and 12th graders were the three volumes of The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins (each volume having a reading level of 5.3), followed by Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird.

While it’s obviously crucial that we continue to improve the reading levels of young children, getting everyone to the 5th grade level and stopping there is equivalent to training doctors by making sure they understand high school Biology and expecting them to figure the rest out on their own.

We have succeeded in getting students to an elementary school level. But more attention and care is required to get them beyond that.