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Flaw in CCSS Lexile Levels for 2-3rd Grade

Caution: If you are using the Common Core “stretch band” Lexile levels to determine what 2nd & 3rd graders should be reading, there is no empirical evidence to support these levels for these grades. Read Upping the Ante of Text Complexity in the Common Core Standards: Examining Its Potential Impact on Young Readers (Hiebert & Mesmer in issue of Educational Researcher, Jan/Feb 2013, pp. 44-51).

Points that jumped out at me:

  • The guidelines for qualitative and reader-task dimensions for determining appropriate texts are “vague” and the effect could be that educators and policymakers are or might start leaning more heavily on the quantitative dimension (i.e., the “stretch” Lexile bands) to choose or mandate texts (Hiebert & Mesmer, 2013, p. 44). The problem, according to Hiebert and Mesmer is that these Lexile bands are “aspirational” and not based on empirical evidence for what is appropriate in 2nd-3rd grade.  (There’s also just the problem with mis-use of readability formulas to determine texts.)
  • The CCSS authors’ rationale for  identifying the complexity of texts at grade level bands in the standards is based on research that does not support such complexity for 2nd-3rd grade texts. They state that “despite steady or growing demand from various resources, K-12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century” (Appendix A, p. 3). Hiebert & Mesmer (2013, p. 46-47) make the case that the research cited does support this trend in high school texts, but not for 2-3rd grade texts. The CCSS authors cite Jeanne Chall’s research (1977) – in fact, Chall’s analysis of primary grade texts was on texts with copyrights from 1956 and 1960 – texts that were no longer in use by 1977; further research has shown that the texts from 1956 and 1960 were considerably easier than more recent texts for the same grades (Hayes et al., 1996). Hiebert & Mesmer discuss another study (Hays et al., 1996) cited by CCSS authors as well – again the authors of the CCSS seemed to have generalized k-12. In the study cited, the texts analyzed for 3rd grade showed an upward trend in complexity of vocabulary in texts.
  • The authors of the CCSS also imply that if we raise the complexity level of texts at the lower grade level bands, then the gap between levels of texts in high school and college will close. NOT NECESSARILY. There is no empirical evidence (research-base) for this and the effects of increasing the complexity of texts when young children are learning how to read could be detrimental. Two anecdotes I’d like to share. A few weeks ago, I met with a kindergarten teacher and literacy coach to plan a demonstration lesson. When I asked the teacher about the alphabet knowledge curriculum (most of her students knew ten letters or less), she stated (and the literacy coach confirmed) that she’d be in trouble if students were caught tracing letters. She shared that she’d been told that the CCSS required more rigorous learning and she was teaching Tier Two vocabulary. Seriously? On another day, a first grade teacher asked me why I was focusing workshop content on helping early readers use picture and visual cues to attempt unknown words (cross-checking) and not on teaching for main idea and supporting details. That’s what she’d been told to focus on with these readers and she implied that this was Common Core-aligned. Really? Both of these educators realized that their readers needed developmentally appropriate instruction – but misinterpretation of the CCSS has led someone somewhere to mandate different instructional content. But back to Hiebert and Mesmer. The point I’m getting at is that we have to be careful with our youngest readers who are trying to develop automaticity and fluency while also making meaning. “When texts become too difficult…automaticity can suffer” (Hiebert & Mesmer, p. 48) and there is research to support this point!!!! In addition, too difficult texts for early and transitional readers can decrease motivation and engagement. And there is more research to support this!
  • Hiebert and Mesmer also discuss the problems with “readability” formulas – particularly how they are used – see more on pages 45-46).
  • Despite the lack of empirical evidence for 2-3rd grades to be reading at 420L-820L, third graders will be assessed at these levels. (See Hiebert & Mesmer for more info, p. 47).

There’s a lot more to this article than I have shared here.

Hiebert & Mesmer’s article was published in a journal for educational researchers and so their recommendations focus on implications for future research.

My question is – What are the implications for everyday practitioners?

It’s hard not to feel powerless.

My first recommendation is EDUCATE YOURSELF. I’d start by reading, rereading and studying this article – so you can articulate to others the problems with setting “aspirational” levels of text complexity for our 3rd grade students and then testing them at these levels. Awareness is a step towards change.

AND this doesn’t mean that our 2nd-3rd grade students shouldn’t be reading complex texts. We just need to be careful in how we determine these texts – not leaning so heavily on a “fill-in-the-blank” Lexile approach, but finding a balance that takes into consideration the developmental needs of these readers as well as motivation and engagement. AND MORE.

Ugh. THIS is hard.

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  • Cathe McCoy says:

    Sunday, I read a bit about this in the newest Ed Leadership. Hadn’t gotten back to it again so I am glad you brought this discussion back up for me. It is so easy to get carried away with the momentum surrounding CCSS reading and we (I) need to ground ourselves with caution and make sure we are gathering the facts and reflect long and hard on our classroom teaching as we implement. We need to proceed like “informed” researchers.
    It appears being informed is a full-time job since there is so much info coming from all directions. This past week I reread the brief written by Cathernine Snow and Catherine O’Connor as part of the Literacy Research Panel of the International Reading Association: Close Reading and Far-Reading Classroom Discussion: Fostering a Vital Connection. As they cite legitimate areas of concern: excessive focus on close reading, student frustration, decline in student motivation, and a time reduction for learning content, it makes you want to sharpen and steady your wits as you cautiously move forward. I always look forward to your insights

  • It’s a little overwhelming to stay “informed,” huh? I found the Hiebert and Mesmer article in full-length after reading the note in the current issue of EL – as I read the article (and it took precious time :)), I gained a deeper sense of urgency on this issue. Also – agreement on the Snow & O’Connor paper – I mentioned in my post BOTH ARTICLES PROPEL US FORWARD in staying informed!

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