Common Core Standards and Text Complexity


"Once in three generations opportunity...for our kids"
Jon Schnur*

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that the "Holy Grail" of education is to ensure that students graduate from high school college and career ready. Both the Race to the Top Fund and the Common Core State Standards Initiative advocate standards that ensure readiness—the most important factor being students' abilities to read and understand texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school. The Lexile® Framework provides valuable insights into student readiness by measuring both the complexity of college and career texts and a student's ability to comprehend these texts.

By some estimates, 42% of freshmen at community colleges and 20% of freshmen at four-year institutions enroll in at least one remedial course1 . Even worse, many struggling readers become disillusioned with postsecondary pursuits and fail to reach their potential. The consequences of this gap are significant. Colleges suffer the economic burden of providing remedial instruction and training programs have trouble recruiting suitable trainees.

Consider this alarming fact: Gary L. Williamson found a 350L (Lexile) gap between the difficulty of end-of-high school and college texts—a gap equivalent to 1.5 standard deviations and more than the Lexile difference between grade 4 and grade 8 texts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)2 .

Williamson measured text complexity using The Lexile Framework for Reading. The Lexile Framework is unique from the other readability formulas mentioned in Common Core in that it measures both text complexity and reader ability on the same developmental scale. Lexile measures are the most widely used reading metric because they allow for students to be matched with materials that provide the right level of challenge for their ability and goals.

Additional research has shown that the texts required for many postsecondary pursuits fall within a Lexile range of 1200L to 1400L, while the text complexity of typical high school textbooks for grades 11 and 12 is about 1050L to 1165L. This research provides valuable insight into the apparent disconnect when high school graduates encounter college and career texts. To put this gap in perspective, a 250L difference between reader ability and text complexity can cause a drop from 75-percent comprehension to 50-percent comprehension. This means that high school seniors who can successfully read twelfth-grade texts may enter college or the workplace several months later and encounter texts that result in less than 50-percent comprehension.

The Common Core Standards aim to ensure that all students are "on track" to be both college and career ready. Research shows that high school graduation no longer guarantees that students are ready for the postsecondary challenges that await them. While the reading demands of college, the workforce and life in general have remained consistent or increased over time, K-12 texts and reading tasks have decreased in complexity. The result is a significant gap between many students' reading abilities and the reading demands they will likely encounter after graduation.

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1. Alliance for Excellent Education. (2006). Paying Double: Inadequate High Schools and Community College Remediation. Washington, DC: Author.

2. Williamson, G. L. (2008). A Text Readability Continuum for Postsecondary Readiness. Journal of Advanced Academics, vol. 19 (4), 602-632.

*Jon Schnur is CEO and co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools. In the 1990's, he served as President Clinton's White House Associate Director for Educational Policy and, more recently, as a senior advisor to Education Secretary Arnie Duncan.