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Common-Core Study: Teachers Aiming Too Low With Reading Assignments

A new survey shows that most teachers are still gearing class reading assignments to students' skill level, rather than--as the common-core standards envision--to their grade level.

"Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments," released Wednesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, explores the practices of teachers as they begin teaching the common standards in public schools in 46 states and the District of Columbia. It's slated for discussion at an event in Washington which will be webcast live Wednesday (at 1 p.m. Eastern) and available in archived form.

The report is based on a survey of 1,154 reading and English/language arts teachers in grades K-10, conducted in February and March of 2012. About four in 10 were high school teachers, one-third were middle-school teachers, and one-quarter taught in elementary school. The study lands as teachers in all but four states are coming to grips with the standards. And it comes in the wake of years of debate about good reading instruction, including disagreements about when to meet a student where she is with a "just right" text, and when to increase the difficulty without reaching "frustration level" and risk making her throw in the towel.

The findings highlight gaps between what the standards envision and how teachers are teaching. One area that those gaps emerged was in how teachers size up how difficult a text their class can manage. Elementary-level teachers were far more likely than those in middle or high school to say that they assign reading materials suited to how well their students read, rather than on what is expected for their grade. Sixty-four percent of elementary school teachers said they chose reading materials this way, compared with 38 percent of those in middle school and 24 percent in high school. More than eight in 10 rated themselves as "very familiar" or "somewhat familiar" with the standards.

That pattern was reflected in their choices of novels, specifically, as well. Fifty-one percent of elementary teachers said when they assign complete novels for the whole class, they based choices on the average class reading level, rather than on the grade level of the class. (Another 22 percent said they based novel choices on grade level, and one-quarter based them on both of those factors and/or additional things.) The class' ability still drove teachers' choice of novels in middle school, but not as heavily: 40 percent said they based novel selections on average class reading level, and 26 percent said they based them on class grade level. That pattern flipped at high school, though, where 28 percent of teachers said they based novel choices on average class reading level, and 43 percent said they based them on the class' grade level.

Teachers rely even more heavily on students' reading levels when helping individual children choose novels to read, according to the survey. Eighty-three percent of elementary teachers said they are more likely to rely on that factor than on a student's grade level in helping him select a novel. Fifty-seven percent of the middle-school teachers said the same, compared with 36 percent of high school teachers.

"These results reveal that many teachers have not confronted the new text complexity demands of the Common Core. Elementary teachers were particularly wary of assigning books that exceeded their students' current reading levels," say the report's three authors, led by University of Illinois-Chicago literacy expert Timothy Shanahan.

"Though this wariness seems to diminish as grade levels rise, even in high school relatively large proportions of students were assigned texts based mainly on their current reading levels," the researchers write. "This was true both when teachers were assigning a single text to a class and when they were making independent reading recommendations. Huge shifts in these practices may lie ahead."

The study also looked at how much teachers focus on teaching a text and how much on teaching a set of skills. Again, the patterns didn't dovetail with the standards' vision of detailed, repeated readings of difficult texts.

The survey asked whether teachers chose particular books, short stories, essays or poems that they think students should read, and then focused instruction of skills and strategies around those readings, or whether they focused on skills, such as identifying the main idea or author's purpose, and planned readings accordingly. In elementary school, 73 percent of the teachers said they used skills as the focal point rather than text. Fifty-six percent of middle school teachers said the same, as did 46 percent of high school teachers.

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