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Most American High Schoolers Read at a Fifth Grade Level

popular books for teens, high school reading level, the hunger games, of mice and men, the great gatsby

High schoolers aren't reading challenging enough texts.

I’ll give you the bad news first: a study by Renaissance Learning, Inc. shows that for teens in grades 9-12, “the average reading level … is 5.3 — barely above the fifth grade.” This was determined by compiling “book-reading records for the 2010-2011 academic year among 2.6 million students in grades 1-12 from 24,465 schools in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.,” The Huffington Post reports.

The good news? Among teens’ favorite books is “The Hunger Games.” Which means your kid will have read the book before seeing the movie!

Reading scores are on the decline in this country; The Huffington Post notes that “National 12th-grade reading scores were lower in 2009 than they were in 1992.” and that among fourth and eighth graders, “Only 34 percent of students were rated reading proficient.”

Dan Coleman, one of the authors behind the Common Core State Standards, says, “The single most important predictor of student success in college is their ability to read a range of complex text with understanding. If you examine the top 40 lists of what students are reading today in 6th—12th grade, you will find much of it is not complex enough to prepare them for the rigors of college and career. Teachers, parents, and students need to work together to ensure that students are reading far more challenging books and practicing every year reading more demanding text.”

That’s all well and good, but what parent really has the time to encourage their child to read more demanding texts? I feel considerably lucky, because my daughter is already above grade level in reading and she shows a voracious love of books. I think I’m a pretty adept reader myself, but reading (and learning of any kind, really) was not something that was fostered in my childhood home. In fact, acting too smart was explicitly frowned upon. So here I am, a grown adult with a child of my own, reading the Ramona Quimby books for the first time, laughing out loud thinking, “Man, I would have loved these as a kid.”

While I understand that if a love of learning is not encouraged at home, there’s not much teachers can do to help kids grow in school, I also wonder why teachers are assigning middle school-level books to high school students. Don’t teachers offer students time to read in class? Shouldn’t students be able to get what they need during the school day, even if they can’t get it at home? I know this is a contentious issue, teachers feeling like they don’t have parental support and parents feeling like they don’t have time to teach their kids, but how do we solve this problem?

Take a look at this short list of books that are typically assigned to high schoolers with the grade level next to the title. Shocking!

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (7.3)

“Animal Farm” by George Orwell (7.3)

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (5.6)

“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck (4.5)

What I fail to understand here is that if the books listed above are classics, if they are great examples of American and British literature, why is it that they’re rated on such a low level? Are they not complex enough? Perhaps the rating system is askew here? I’m just not sure what to think. I’m not surprised that your typical Y.A. books fall short of the literary ideal in terms of what our kids should be reading, but what gives here? Your thoughts?

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