Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Text Complexity

This is the central organizing idea of the Common Core reading standards:

In 2006, ACT, Inc., released a report called Reading Between the Lines that showed which skills differentiated those students who equaled or exceeded the benchmark score (21 out of 36) in the reading section of the ACT college admissions test from those who did not. Prior ACT research had shown that students achieving the benchmark score or better in reading—which only about half (51 percent) of the roughly half million test takers in the 2004–2005 academic year had done—had a high probability (75 percent chance) of earning a C or better in an introductory, credit-bearing course in U.S. history or psychology (two common reading-intensive courses taken by first-year college students) and a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better in such a course.

Surprisingly, what chiefly distinguished the performance of those students who had earned the benchmark score or better from those who had not was not their relative ability in making inferences while reading or answering questions related to particular cognitive processes, such as determining main ideas or understanding the meaning of words in context. Instead, the clearest differentiator was students’ ability to answer questions associated with complex texts. Students scoring below benchmark performed no better than chance (25 percent correct) on multiple-choice questions pertaining to passages rated as “complex” on a three-point qualitative rubric described in the report. These findings held for male and female students, students from all racial/ethnic groups, and students from families with widely varying incomes. The most important implication of this study was that a pedagogy focused only on “higher-order” or “critical” thinking was insufficient to ensure that students were ready for college and careers: what students could read, in terms of its complexity, was at least as important as what they could do with what they read.

In this sense, these standards are designed to be "college-level literacy" standards. Can you independently decode and comprehend texts of sufficient complexity and length to get through college courses? That's what the standards endeavor to ask.

They do see reading as a skill, but quite explicitly not a "21st Century" skill. Nor do they perceive a liberal arts approach to high school humanities as being necessary or sufficient. And they warn against using proxies like the application of specific reading strategies in place of more direct attempts to measure comprehension; although it is unclear whether they believe those strategies are necessary for comprehension.

Their analysis has a commonsensical appeal, particularly if you accept the framing of the problem of primary and secondary education strictly in terms of college preparedness.

But whether this is right or wrong, this is not the way other countries, states, or professional organizations have approached writing reading standards; it is not the "common" approach. They're clearly making an argument that previous standards were fundamentally flawed, and that the Common Core standards represent a new, corrected design. Rushing to write national standards is a dubious idea; rushing to adopt and implement national standards whose philosophical roots are not widely discussed, understood or accepted seems like a recipe for disaster.

1 comment:

Doug Noon said...

They are standards written by textbook publishers, designed to create textbook-ready students. It's a system.