Report: Students read way below level that prepares them for college, careers

Renaissance Learning, which tracks the reading habits of some 10 million US students, has released a report that not only tallies which books kids are reading, but also analyzes the complexity of the reading material.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Alisha Marte reads a book that she will log into her summer reading list at Harvard Kent Elementary School in Boston in this 2012 file photo.

American students are reading more nonfiction, but not as much as Common Core standards recommend, and their reading tends to be far less challenging than it should be to prepare them for college or careers.

That's one take-away from the latest "What Kids Are Reading" report from Renaissance Learning. The organization tracks the reading habits of some 10 million US students at all grade levels through its Accelerated Reader program, in which students record and take quizzes about books they read, both independently and as assigned reading.

For the past five years, its report has contained lists of the top fiction and nonfiction books by grade, for both boys and girls, giving a sense of their reading habits and when kids shift from "Green Eggs and Ham" to "The Outsiders." In the new report, Renaissance goes beyond the lists to analyze the complexity of kids' reading material, how much they read, and why it matters.

"Kids who spend a lot of time reading and have success reading are ones who grow most," says Eric Stickney, Renaissance’s director of educational research. "This raises a lot of questions about the extent to which teachers and parents are providing enough time for students to practice reading."

Research indicates that students who spend at least 30 minutes a day reading independently, at an appropriate "challenge" level (where they can understand at least 85 percent of what they read), experience the most growth in reading, according to the report. And yet just over a quarter of students in Renaissance's study read that often, and nearly half read for less than 15 minutes a day.

Students' reading amount peaks in sixth grade, when they read about 436,000 words per year in books, and then falls to the low 300,000s by the end of high school. Girls, however, tend to read a lot more than boys: The average girl reads some 3.8 million words between Grades 1 and 12, about 25 percent more than the average boy, who reads about 3 million.

"A key cornerstone of reading comprehension is vocabulary," Mr. Stickney says. "A lot of the words that need to be learned are encountered in literature.... Over time, boys are at a disadvantage because they're just not getting enough exposure to vocabulary."

The report also tracks complexity, measuring how challenging books are with the so-called ATOS formula. New standards have specified that reading should rise in complexity as students get older to prepare them for the more complex reading they're likely to encounter in college or careers. But by the end of high school, the average complexity of the books that 12th-graders are reading is 5.2 on the ATOS scale – a far cry from what standards say they should be reading – between 9.7 and 14.1 for high school – and far lower than the complexity of the average New York Times article (10.6) or college textbook (13.8).

"In elementary school, kids being asked to [read appropriately difficult books], and they can handle it," says Stickney. By high school, less than 15 percent of students read one or more books in their target range.

The Common Core State Standards have called for more nonfiction reading, and guidelines from the National Assessment Governing Board suggest students move to about 70 percent nonfiction by 12th grade. The Renaissance survey shows that since Common Core standards were announced, the percent of reading that is nonfiction has moved up by about 5 percent for every grade level, Stickney says. But it's still far below the recommended levels – the proportion of nonfiction books read independently varies from 13 percent to 31 percent based on gender and grade level – though the survey doesn't capture articles, essays, or other informational reading that students may be assigned in various classes.

As for what students are actually reading, a new website allows users to search the data for top books by grade, state, gender, and type of book, offering parents and teachers a window into what piques students' interest (or, in some cases, what other teachers are assigning). In the fiction category, the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series tops the list from Grades 3 through 7, while in the later grades, classics like "Night," "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "The Crucible" share top places with popular teen literature like "The Hunger Games" and the "Divergent" series.

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