Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency

Few issues in education seem more important or more universally embraced (from so-called progressive educators to right-wing politicians such as Jeb Bush) than the need to have all children reading on grade level—specifically by that magical third grade:

Five years ago, communities across the country formed a network aimed at getting more of their students reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade. States, cities, counties, nonprofit organizations, and foundations in 168 communities, spread across 41 states and the District of Columbia, are now a part of that initiative, theCampaign for Grade-Level Reading.

However, advocating that all students must read at grade level—often defined as reading proficiency—rarely acknowledges the foundational problems with those goals: identifying text by a formula claiming “grade level” and then identifying children as readers by association with those readability formulas.

This text, some claim, is a fifth-grade text, and thus children who can “read” that text independently are at the fifth-grade reading level.

While all this seems quite scientific and manageable, I must call hokum—the sort of technocratic hokum that daily ruins children as readers, under-prepares children as literate and autonomous humans, and further erodes literacy as mostly testable literacy.

So who does this grade-level reading and proficiency benefit?

First, lets consider what anyone means by “reading.” For the sake of discussion, this is oversimplified, but I think, not distorting to the point of misleading. Reading may be essentially decoding, pronouncing words, phrases, and clauses with enough fluency to give the impression of understanding. Reading may be comprehension, strategies and then behaviors or artifacts by a reader that mostly represent (usually in different and fewer words) an accurate or mostly accurate, but unqualified, restating of the original text.

But reading may also (I would add should) be critical literacy, the investigating of text that moves beyond comprehension and places both text and “meaning” in the dynamic of reader, writer, and text (Rosenblatt) as well as how that text is bound by issues of power while also working against the boundaries of power, history, and the limitations of language.

In that framing, then, grade-level reading and proficiency are trapped mostly at decoding and comprehension, promoting the argument that all meaning is in the text only (a shared but anemic claim of New Criticism).

This narrow and inadequate view of text and reading (and readers) serves authoritarian approaches to teaching and mechanistic structures of testing, and more broadly, reducing text and reading to mere technical matters serves mostly goals of surveillance and control.

Consider first the allure of formula that masks the arbitrary nature of formula. Plug “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams into a readability calculator—first in its poetic format of lines and stanzas, and then as a grammatical sentence.

As a poem, apparently, the text is about 4th grade, but as a sentence, nearly 9th grade.

The problem is that readability formulas and claims of “grade level” are entirely the function of the limitations of math (the necessity to quantify and then the byproduct of honoring only that which can be quantified)—counting word syllables, number of words in sentences.

Reducing text to numbers, reducing students to numbers—both perpetuate a static and thus false view of text and reading. “Meaning” is not static, but temporal, shifting, and more discourse or debate than pronouncement.

“The Red Wheelbarrow” is really “easy” to read, both aloud and to comprehend. But readability formulas address nothing about genre or form, nothing about the rich intent of the writer (for example, poetry often presents only a small fraction of the larger context), nothing about all that that various readers bring to the text.

And to the last point, when we confront reading on grade level or reading proficiency, we must begin to unpack how and why any reader is investigating a text.

As I have detailed, we can take a children’s picture book—which by all technical matters is at primary or elementary grade levels—and add complex lenses of analysis, rendering the same text extremely complex—with a meaning that is expanding instead of static and singular.

Text complexity, readers’ grade level, and concurrent hokum such as months or years of learning are the grand distractions of technocrats: “it is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing” (The Tragedy of Macbeth, 5, 5).

Grand pronouncements about grade-level reading and proficiency, then, benefit politicians, textbook companies, and the exploding testing industry. But not children, not literacy, and not democracy.

Leveled books, labeled children, and warped education policy (grade retention based on high-stakes testing) destroy reading and the children advocates claim to be serving.

Thus, alas, there is simply no reading crisis and no urgency to have students on grade level, by third or any grade.

The cult of proficiency and grade-level reading is simply the lingering “cult of efficiency” that plagues formal education in the U.S.—quantification for quantification’s sake, children and literacy be damned.

See Also

CQ Researcher:  Does Common Core help students learn critical thinking? No.

21st Century Literacy If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate?, Schmidt and Thomas

Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

9 comments

  1. Jill Reifschneider

    Thank you. Well explained. I am glad to hear that I’m not the only one who has a problem with “grade-level”.

  2. Stewart

    It seems to me that if the backers of these initiatives really wanted to improve reading levels by third grade (and if they’d be willing to give up their hopeless quest to quantify reading ability) they could try using all the money being funneled into it for providing books and reading support programs for low- to moderate-income parents with very young children. Tutor both together from an early age, and you’ll not only improve the children’s real reading ability, but their overall school performance and their parents may benefit as well. We’ve long known of the advantages gained by early exposure to books and parental reading with children, but the fact is that the execution of this would also require the kind of social supports that too many still don’t support in the U.S. Instead, vast sums get thrown down the money hole of “reform” to stem fake crises and “education” companies are milking it for all it’s worth. They love grade level schemes (or is that lexile levels now?) because, what they can quantify, they can monetize and sell to both districts and charters, the good of the children involved not withstanding.

  3. sharonkinsey2010

    Paul, you always hit the issues square on. It is both amazing and sad that our teaching methodologies have changed little over the past 100 years – especially as to reading. Well, that’s not true. We’ve created mega-companies making huge profits selling reading “programs” to fix children whom the system has both failed and broken. It seems easier for administrators to buy a canned silver bullet (so they think) rather than put effort into rethinking pedagogy and curriculum. Or maybe the issue is that they are not smart enough? Anyway – my personal philosophy developed after reading countless books and blogs as well as observing children struggle is that we need to meet the children where they are – and go from there.

    In my perfect classroom I see “reading stations” of small groups of kids – each group engaged in a different readiing activity based on their own cognitive and scholastic abilities. I see guided reading and literature circles. I see whole class teaching limited to a read aloud using a mentor text to engage students in discussion and beyond the text thinking along with a mini lesson designed to build on their thought processes. I see curriculum built around “big ideas or concepts” – like “What is a hero” or “Overcoming obstacles” or “Can one person really make a difference.” I see curriculum designed using UBD practices where we start with the desired outcome and work backgrounds. I see kids engaged in thought provoking discussions – maybe even organized debates to encourage not just deep thinking – but broad and flexible thinking. I see a classroom with no desks – only comfortable old furniture and lamps and a 3,000 book class library. I see kids sharing their favorite books with classmates and giving “book talks.” I see kids engaged in community projects as part of the curriculum – tying the “big ideas” to the real world.

    I’ve had people accuse me of being idealistic – not grounded in reality. I have not yet started teaching – I get my credentials this summer (I am a retired attorney and high tech executive who was bitten by the literacy bug). I may never get a job because of my personal beliefs. Or I may have to “settle” for accepting a job in a school using programs designed for failure. In any event – they cannot stop me from dreaming and thank you Paul for keeping the dream alive.

  4. Lloyd Lofthouse

    Reblogged this on Crazy Normal – the Classroom Exposé and commented:
    Children who grow up in homes devoid of books and magazines with parents/guardians who don’t read even if they can read will always be struggling to catch up and often falling behind no matter what the so-called foolish experts think and force the public schools and teachers to do.

    This ignorant and dangerous thinking is pounding a round peg into a square hole that is smaller than the round peg to start with.

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  6. Charlie Maddaus

    Here in Vermont, where I’m currently teaching, and also my home-state of Maine, the proficiency-based diploma is looming in the not-so-distant future, and sadly, no one seems to have any idea of what it means. The concept is fueled by the Great Schools Partnership and full of empty principles, devoid of content:
    http://www.greatschoolspartnership.org/proficiency/
    This sort of Zombie Diploma Program with it’s soulless, mindless series of standards is already sapping the life out of high schools in our region.

    My experience teaching in New Zealand suggests that standards-based education can be a valid model if the paths (university, tecnology school, work force) are well defined, but I see no such definition here, beyond some hollow rhetoric about transferable skills. Roughly 65-70% of New Zealand year 11 students finish year 13 and go on to university, while the balance enter the work force with no ‘diploma.’ This may be fine in an agricultural ecomony, but won’t pass the muster in the US, where agriculture and manufacturing jobs are becoming close to non-existant.

    Moving forward, we will need to moderate the standards (water them down) in order to maintain current graduation rates, or establish learning paths which move toward realistic vocational or technological qualifications, which do not currently exist in any established form. And we’ll still have a diploma with little to no substantive content or soul. The result of this Zombie Diploma Program is not something I am looking forward to seeing, and I wonder what you’ll see at the post-secondary level.

    Dr. Thomas, I’d be interested in more commentary on the Cult of Proficiency as it relates to the secondary school proficiency-based diploma programs which seem to be gaining traction across the country.

    PS: I love “The Red Wheelbarrow” reference. I have discussed the poem many times with high school students, who appreciate the simplicity and the metaphoric and aesthetic qualities of the poem. I often ask them to write their own “So much depends upon” poem, with wide ranging results.

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