Why So Many Students Aren’t Ready for College

Education Views

We know that average American students today are not ready for college from two different sources: (1) Renaissance Learning’s latest report on the average reading level of what students in 9-12 choose to read or are assigned to read, and (2) the average reading level of what colleges assign incoming freshmen to read. From these two sources that are independent of each other, we learn that average American students read at about the grade 7 level. Some high school students can read high school-level material, of course, while others are still reading at an elementary school level (even though they are in high school).

Where is the evidence? According to Beach Books: 2013-2014, the top 7 books assigned as summer reading by 341 colleges are as follows (together with a reading level, if available, based on Renaissance Learning’s readability formula—http://www.arbookfind.com/UserType.aspx):

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (RL: 8.1)

This I Believe by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (RL: 7.1)

Wine to Water by Doc Hendley

Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan (RL: 6.1)

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen (RL: 7.0)

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (RL: 9.5)

The average reading level (RL) for the 5 of the top 7 books whose reading level is available is 7.56 (meaning grade 7, sixth month).

When we go deeper into the reading list, the reading level seems to get lower. Of the 53 most frequently mentioned titles listed in Beach Books: 2013-2014, the reading levels of 23 were available, with an average level of 6.8.  Based on the information available, it seems that our colleges are not demanding a college-level reading experience for incoming freshmen.  Nor are they sending a signal to the nation’s high schools that high school-level reading is needed for college readiness. Indeed, they seem to be suggesting that a middle school-level of reading is satisfactory, even though most college textbooks and adult literary works written before 1970 require mature reading skills. However, our colleges can’t easily develop college-level reading skills if most students admitted to a post-secondary institution in this country have difficulty reading even high school-level textbooks.

As for Renaissance Learning’s own reports, its 2014 report showed that the average reading level (using its own readability formula—ATOS for Books) was 6.7 for the 25 most frequently read works of fiction by grade 12 students. This number was higher than the average reading level for the top 25 informational texts [aka nonfiction, including history?] read by grade 12 students. The average reading levels at other high school grades were lower for both the top 25 works of fiction and informational texts, calculated separately.

So, to be charitable, it seems that the average American high school student going to college today reads at a 6th or 7th grade reading level. This is hardly the reading level needed for college textbooks and other readings assigned in college. No wonder our community colleges spend a lot of money on remedial or developmental coursework for entering freshmen, especially in mathematics.

Although Common Core promised to make all students college-ready, it didn’t tell the state boards of education who bought into this idea (or the public at large) what reading level that meant. Nor did any state board member (so far as we know) ask. There is no information available from any source on what college readiness in reading means, from Common Core’s own documents or from the various test developers. What can a high school student judged to be college-ready actually be able to read?

Nor has anyone supporting the Common Core initiative suggested why we should expect the Common Core project to raise the reading level of the average American high school student since Common Core’s reading “standards” are, for the most part, empty skill sets. Moreover, there is nothing in its English language arts/reading document to indicate that students are to be assigned and taught to read more difficult material than whatever they are already reading—grade after grade—in a coherent reading curriculum.

Most media outlets in this country rarely discuss these reading issues at all. They don’t find out the reading level of what students in our elementary, middle, and high school classes are reading and then ask how those reading levels can make students ready for college-level reading by grade 11. They rarely tell us the titles and authors of what they are reading so we can try to figure out ourselves if a curriculum addressing Common Core’s standards is really going to raise students’ reading levels. Unless the reading level is raised, “college ready” students won’t be able to read those textbooks and other reading materials in college, most if not all of which are written at the college level.

Does reading level matter? The Wall Street Journal doesn’t think so, so far as I can see. All it worries about are “skills” devoid of content knowledge.

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky is Professor Emerita of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

6 thoughts on “Why So Many Students Aren’t Ready for College

  1. This may shine some light on why dead white men posing as authors are so deplored by current scholars. They were known to write complicated stuff.
    Reading was never a thing to be begrudgingly learned at a middle school level, and then barely maintained as a thing to have been accomplished in such a way as to carry on at the exact same level throughout a lifetime.

    I work in a university library. The kind of place that upholds the highest standards there are.
    I hear in random bits and bytes the year long, how kids don’t read. They hate to read. They approach reading as if it is an unnatural activity. A terrible burden. A thing too monstrous a punishment.

    Reading is the ultimate challenge upon singular focus. To do that one simple and single thing, and no other. It is not a “multitasked” design, an airbrushed performance, or a botheration invented only to torment the screen-addicted.
    Reading is the rock-solid foundation of a good education. As it always has been. There is no alternative road map.

    I could list a thousand reasons why reading has great value even for its own sake, let alone for the purpose of academic accomplishment. But I’ll just mention one or two obvious examples. If reading presents a strong foundation for writing (and even speaking) skills, then it follows that expertise with actual language serves self-expression: to agree or disagree and explain why, in fact, to even know why.
    To gather information, data, opinion, ideas, diversity of thought autonomously, free and clear of the din and racket of media partisanship.

    We think of illiteracy as a complete inability to read at all, or write, for that matter.
    We lose sight of the fact that there are perhaps dozens of layers of illiteracy/literacy. The more you move away from one, the more you move into an actual mature state of engagement with the real and actual world as it is.
    Which is a rather charming payoff for the effort put in.

    And finally. I grew up in a reading culture. Which really meant that all the hard work that teachers put in to teach me how to, and to inspire me to read by the grade level of 4, and the age level of 9, waltzed me nicely straight into a time of life where my natural curiosity took off and did much of the rest. And I was not unusual, strange, unique or so very different from my fellows. I was pure average for my time.

    The world of books and print material is one of the greatest gifts granted any human being – regardless of their culture, language, or situation. Just go ask some 3-4 generations of Afghanistan girls and women who risked death for an education, and for whom the word education and the word freedom are practically synonymous.
    Yes, we should be ashamed that having shaped a society so rich, so free, so powerful, so full of itself, we have become so very soft and pudgy, so much pudding slopped from a sensibility gone to pot. Using what little native intelligence left to us to come up with so many lame excuses about why our children can’t seem to learn how to read.
    As if this were one of the real mysteries of the universe.
    Instead of it being painfully obvious. A pain opiated and medicated by all that is ‘fun’, and much that is mediocre, pedestrian, infantilized, immature, and just plain avoidance of anything deemed to be too difficult.

  2. In school we were taught how to read Shakespeare and Dickens.
    You do need electricity if you read in the evening.

  3. High school kids are so overloaded, that they hardly have time to read at all. Emotionally, you can’t process Dostoyevsky, if you don’t have enough time to sleep.

    Personally, I truly enjoyed Dostoevsky once in my live: I was on a remote island, it was raining, I was alone, and electricity was off for a week. Great time to read and reflect. 🙂

    Hello, adults! When was the last time YOU read Shakespeare and Dickens instead of watching Netflix?

  4. So our wonderful 18 year old darlings, who no doubt have only the highest self esteem, need 7th grade level reading in order to have any “common foundation for discussion”? They cannot be expected to have any thoughts or concepts worthy of discussion if the reading is, say, “Great Expectations,” “Macbeth,” or “All the King’s Men”? If there won’t be compliance for assigned summer reading that is above the 7th grade level (which could presumably be tested), why expect compliance during the school year unless the reading there is equally dumbed down? Set the expectations low enough and you’ ll have your high compliance, but it will be no better than a few hours of mandatory television.

  5. This seems to entirely ignore the most obvious reasons behind the summer reading level, which are:

    1) The purpose of most summer reading is to provide a common foundation for discussion among all students (as opposed to “providing an educational experience.”) As such, the benefit comes from the discussion/commonality and not the content.

    2) Given the above purpose, colleges are primarily interested in a high rate of compliance, to allow for said commonality/discussion.

    3) The simpler that you make it to comply with a task, the higher that your compliance rate will be.

    So your rant seems off.

    Heck, I have multiple graduate degrees but it isn’t as if I spend all my time reading graduate-level work, at least outside my job. Far from it. Often I enjoy reading a James Patterson or similar novel, 7th-grade level notwithstanding.

    Moreover, easy reads are often the only books one can find time for because they require minimal attention. I can read a cheesy paperback on a subway or airplane, or on the couch next to a chatty six year old. I can’t do that with Dr. Faustus.

    The unsurprising result is that I have a 10:1 ratio (at least!) of “cheesy books read” to “high-level books read.” If you were to conclude that I didn’t have a high reading level, you’d be dead wrong.

    Similarly, if you were trying to maximize the chances of making me read a book which I wouldn’t otherwise choose to read, then the chances would be MUCH higher if it was a light read than a heavy one, merely due to the simplicity of finding time.

    1. I’m glad you agree that college reading assignments for incoming freshmen aren’t college-level reading.

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