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Upping the Ante of Text Complexity in the Common Core State Standards: Examining Its Potential Impact on Young Readers

Issue/Topic: Common Core Standards and Assessments
Author(s): Mesmer, Heidi Anne; Hiebert, Elfrieda
Organization(s): Virginia Tech
Publication: Educational Researcher
Published On: 2013

Background:
The Common Core State Standards for the English Language Arts (CCSS) provide explicit guidelines matching grade-level bands with targeted text complexity levels. The CCSS staircase accelerates text expectations for students across Grades 2-12 in order to close a gap in the complexity of texts typically used in high school and those of college and career. The first step of the band is at second and third grades and marks the entry into the staircase and a critical developmental juncture.

Purpose:
To raise caution about the text complexity staircase so that potential, unintended consequences do not occur for students in the primary grades.

Findings/Results:
  • It is middle and high school levels that have decreased over the past 50 years, not the texts of the primary grades.
  • The CCSS writers based the rationale for increased text levels in grades 2-3 on three assumptions, but the research the authors found supports those assumptions only for the upper grades--not for primary-level grades.
    • Assumption #1: Many current high school graduates are not prepared to read the texts of college and the workplace.
      • The literature provides support for the assumption that secondary school students may not be reading texts at the requisite complexity, but the literature is mute on the connection between second- and third-grade text levels and future performance in the texts of college and career.
    • Assumption #2: K-12 texts have decreased in complexity.
      • An  assumption of declines in text complexity appears valid for upper grades, especially in high school, but it is not supported for primary-level texts.
    • Assumption #3: Increasing the complexity of texts from the primary grades onward can close the gap between the levels of texts in high school and college.
      • No longitudinal evidence is available to show that reading at a high Lexile level (ex: 790L) at third grade is a prerequisite for reading complex texts at high school level.
      • The small set of studies that have examined text complexity over time does not show that text complexity at grade 3 has deteriorated.
  • Using only one quantitative measure (ex: Lexile framework - an analysis of word frequency and sentence length) to accelerate text levels for second and third graders leaves room for potential misinterpretation.

  • There are potential negative effects of accelerated text levels in the primary grades.
    • Changes in instructional texts require substantial financial investments, making changes in text levels as part of instruction less certain in many states that have experienced decreases in educational spending.
    • Increases in text demands in the primary grades could lead to decreased levels of automaticity and fluency in recognizing words. When texts become too difficult, automaticity can suffer.
    • Research indicates that motivation decreases when tasks become too challenging.
    • High-stakes assessments in third grade can influence teachers' sense of efficacy, and while how teacher efficacy influences their reading instruction is uncertain, teacher attrition may be an outcome of poor test performance.


Policy Implications/Recommendations:
  • Increasing the pressure on the primary grades -- without careful work that indicates why the necessary levels are not attained by many more students -- may have consequences that could widen the gap that is already too large for the students who, at present, are left out of many careers and higher education.
  • Recommendations for research avenues to be pursued:
    • Text complexity levels should be informed by research.
    • Research should be conducted that investigates the consequences of higher text levels on the instructions and achievement in the primary grades in particular.
    • Theoretically driven research on text features in the primary grades should be completed. What constitutes appropriate text for students in the early phases of learning to read is not clear, and current text-complexity measurement systems do not reliably predict beginning reading text levels.
    • It may be wise to conduct a large-scale study that answers the question: Why are many American third graders not attaining the fundamental level of reading associated with future school success?

To access full study: http://edr.sagepub.com/content/42/1/44.abstract


Research Design:
Literature review

Population/Participants/Subjects:
Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts - Acceleration of text complexity in grades 2-3.

Year data is from:
N/A

Setting:
National

Data Collection and Analysis:
Review of the acceleration of text complexity in grades 2-3 of the Common Core State Standards and a review of the research on text complexity.

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