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A New Way To Gauge Text Complexity: Too Complex?

One of the thornier aspects of the new common standards is the formula for sizing up the complexity of a text. You've probably heard that the standards hit heavily on the importance of students reading stuff that is sufficiently complex to challenge them and evolve their reading skills. You've probably heard less, however, about exactly how teachers are supposed to gauge a text's complexity.

The folks who wrote the standards offered up a three-pronged approach to doing this. But it might have been overlooked by standards-readers that skipped the appendices. (I know; isn't there something about an appendix that tempts you to just skip it? It feels like extra homework.) In the insular world of common-standards-insiders, Appendix A is widely discussed and obsessed over; it's where this formula for gauging text complexity lies, with its little triangle graphic as an illustration.

To boil it down to a dubious level of simplicity, the standards writers argue that sizing up complexity by the typical methods—which rely heavily on things like sentence length and word familiarity—doesn't produce accurate grade-level assignments for many books. And that, of course, means that students are often being paired with readings that aren't right for them. The triangle in Appendix A proposes that educators must take three types of things into consideration when sizing up a text: things that can be quantitatively measured (like sentence or word length), things that have to be sized up qualitatively (such as structure or meaning), and a combination of the task at hand and what the student brings to it.

This makes for a pretty complicated analysis, as I reported when I saw teachers in New York City struggle to learn this new three-pronged approach. The argument behind the value of that struggle, of course, is that it produces a more accurate, complete view of how difficult a text is for a given student. But the drawback is that it could be too complicated. That's what Fordham Institute blogger Kathleen Porter-Magee argues in a blog post this week.

Appendix A is under revision, so it will be interesting to keep an eye on that ball and see where it comes down, and how it's put into practice.

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