We know that average American students today are not ready for college from two different sources: (1) Renaissance Learning’s latest report on the average reading level of what students in 9-12 choose to read or are assigned to read, and (2) the average reading level of what colleges assign incoming freshmen to read. From these two sources that are independent of each other, we learn that average American students read at about the grade 7 level. Some high school students can read high school-level material, of course, while others are still reading at an elementary school level (even though they are in high school).
Where is the evidence? According to Beach Books: 2013-2014, the top 7 books assigned as summer reading by 341 colleges are as follows (together with a reading level, if available, based on Renaissance Learning’s readability formula—http://www.arbookfind.com/UserType.aspx):
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (RL: 8.1)
This I Believe by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman
The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (RL: 7.1)
Wine to Water by Doc Hendley
Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan (RL: 6.1)
Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen (RL: 7.0)
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (RL: 9.5)
The average reading level (RL) for the 5 of the top 7 books whose reading level is available is 7.56 (meaning grade 7, sixth month).
When we go deeper into the reading list, the reading level seems to get lower. Of the 53 most frequently mentioned titles listed in Beach Books: 2013-2014, the reading levels of 23 were available, with an average level of 6.8. Based on the information available, it seems that our colleges are not demanding a college-level reading experience for incoming freshmen. Nor are they sending a signal to the nation’s high schools that high school-level reading is needed for college readiness. Indeed, they seem to be suggesting that a middle school-level of reading is satisfactory, even though most college textbooks and adult literary works written before 1970 require mature reading skills. However, our colleges can’t easily develop college-level reading skills if most students admitted to a post-secondary institution in this country have difficulty reading even high school-level textbooks.
As for Renaissance Learning’s own reports, its 2014 report showed that the average reading level (using its own readability formula—ATOS for Books) was 6.7 for the 25 most frequently read works of fiction by grade 12 students. This number was higher than the average reading level for the top 25 informational texts [aka nonfiction, including history?] read by grade 12 students. The average reading levels at other high school grades were lower for both the top 25 works of fiction and informational texts, calculated separately.
So, to be charitable, it seems that the average American high school student going to college today reads at a 6th or 7th grade reading level. This is hardly the reading level needed for college textbooks and other readings assigned in college. No wonder our community colleges spend a lot of money on remedial or developmental coursework for entering freshmen, especially in mathematics.
Although Common Core promised to make all students college-ready, it didn’t tell the state boards of education who bought into this idea (or the public at large) what reading level that meant. Nor did any state board member (so far as we know) ask. There is no information available from any source on what college readiness in reading means, from Common Core’s own documents or from the various test developers. What can a high school student judged to be college-ready actually be able to read?
Nor has anyone supporting the Common Core initiative suggested why we should expect the Common Core project to raise the reading level of the average American high school student since Common Core’s reading “standards” are, for the most part, empty skill sets. Moreover, there is nothing in its English language arts/reading document to indicate that students are to be assigned and taught to read more difficult material than whatever they are already reading—grade after grade—in a coherent reading curriculum.
Most media outlets in this country rarely discuss these reading issues at all. They don’t find out the reading level of what students in our elementary, middle, and high school classes are reading and then ask how those reading levels can make students ready for college-level reading by grade 11. They rarely tell us the titles and authors of what they are reading so we can try to figure out ourselves if a curriculum addressing Common Core’s standards is really going to raise students’ reading levels. Unless the reading level is raised, “college ready” students won’t be able to read those textbooks and other reading materials in college, most if not all of which are written at the college level.
Does reading level matter? The Wall Street Journal doesn’t think so, so far as I can see. All it worries about are “skills” devoid of content knowledge.