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CCSS: Measuring Text Complexity
posted by: Melissa | May 29, 2013, 04:47 PM   

One of the key changes in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is the change in how teachers choose what to read with their students.  In the past, teachers have used such tools as Fountas & Pinnell text level gradient, Lexile scores, Accelerated Reader scores, the contents of language arts text books, district-wide reading lists, or even falling back on a sense of what books have been historically read at certain grade levels.

CCSS challenges teachers to think about what books they are assigning for reading in new ways.  Unlike programs similar to Fountas & Pinnell which seek to help students find books that are just right for their reading level, CCSS pushes teachers to choose complex texts that will push students to greater understanding.

The push for more complex texts is based on a 2006 study from ACT, Inc, which found that student’s success on the ACT test was directly related to their ability to parse complex reading passages, along with a 2005 College Board study which discovered that college professors were assigning texts of increasingly complexity in college at the same time as the complexity of texts in the K-12 range is decreasing.

CCSS urges teachers to judge texts on three different factors:
  • Quantitative Measures such as Lexile scores and other leveling measures that score such factors as word length and difficulty, sentence length, and text cohesion.
  •  Qualitative Measures such as the background knowledge needed for true comprehension, how many levels of meaning appear in the text, the difficulty of text structure, and how clear or obfuscated the language is.
  • And Reader Variables such as student motivation for reading, interest areas, cross-curricular subjects, and difficulty of accompanying class exercises.
Unfortunately, despite the clear instructions to take multiple variables into account when selecting texts, teachers often find themselves confused as to which texts to choose, or are being pressured to select texts based only on quantitative measures which lead to selections that are not always grade-level appropriate.  For example, based only on quantitative measures like Lexile score, a book like Grapes of Wrath would place at the second grade reading level.  However, it is apparent that such measures like text complexity and theme make the book appropriate only at the high school level. It is possible to avoid these pitfalls while deciding on which texts to add to the curriculum.   

First, teachers should be informed about how CCSS expects text complexity to be decided.  Appendex A and B of the English-language arts standards go into depth about what factors should be considered while determining grade appropriateness and text complexity.  Through knowledge, teachers can not only make informed decisions for their class, but can also resist pressure to pick inappropriate texts due to misinformation held by others.

Teachers can also make use of published tools to help choose grade-appropriate texts.  Achieve the Core, for example, has multiple rubrics that cover both quantitative and qualitative measures.

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