Text Complexity & the Common Core

There has been quite a bit published recently on the Common Core State Standards and what they will mean for teachers in the classroom.  In this recent video, Tim Shanahan argues that it’s not what students are being asked to do with a text that presents the difficulty, but the complexity level of the text itself.  As Shanahan and others have argued:

So why is the common core making such a big deal out of having kids read hard text? One of the most persuasive pieces of evidence they considered was a report, Reading: Between the Lines, published by American College Testing (ACT; 2006)…In Reading: Between the Lines, ACT demonstrates that student performance cannot be differentiated in any meaningful way by question type. Students do not perform differently if they are answering literal recall items or inferential items (or other question types like main idea or vocabulary, either). Test performance, according to ACT, is driven by text rather than questions. Thus, if students are asked to read a hard passage, they may only answer a few questions correctly, no matter what types of questions they may be. On the other hand, with an easy enough text, students may answer almost any questions right, again with no differences by question type.

And here’s ELA standards writer, Sue Pimentel, providing some historical context on why change was needed in ELA and what she considers the key shifts in the ELA standards.  Of particular interest, is the shift in text complexity.  Students will now be expected to read increasingly sophisticated levels of complex text in order to graduate prepared for college and career materials. 

Both videos are worth checking out and provide a succinct explanation on the importance of text complexity in the common core state standards.

Pushing Through to the Top

Interesting take over at Scholastic Math Hub on what the common core portends for the publishing world.  Hung-Hsi Wu, a math professor at UC-Berkeley, has argued that the common core offers a unique opportunity to publishers – the opportunity to recreate far more effective mathematics textbooks, textbooks which capture which capture the depth and richness of the new standards.  Specifically, Wu is hoping for textbooks that capture the inter-relatedness of all math content:

Preparing to teach proper school mathematics is not about learning a craft, but, rather, a discipline that is cognitively complex and hierarchical.  Each topic, no matter how basic, is essential to some future topic.

Wu’s right.  And the interconnectedness of each strand is well illustrated by the Quantile Framework, which not only places student and task difficulty on the same scale, but also provides the prerequisite skills for each and every math skill and concept.  We share Wu’s hope that the common core will provide the impetus for richer and more comprehensive math textbooks.

Fulfilling the Promise of the Common Core

Our own Malbert Smith just released a new policy brief: Fulfilling the Promise of the Common Core.  Smith outlines some of the major challenges facing educators, including the imperative to ensure that students are graduating college and career ready.  An important component of ensuring steady progress toward college and career readiness is facilitating student reading growth throughout a student’s entire academic career.  Otherwise, students unable to handle grade-level material by high school face an enormous challenge in trying to ‘catch-up’ by time of graduation. 

Smith outlines two important strategies for ensuring students remain on track for life after high school – extended instructional time and personalized learning:

The “New Normal” requires us to find innovative solutions to eliminate the readiness gap. There are two promising, cost-effective strategies that can help us achieve the Common Core within today’s financial and time parameters: personalized learning platforms and summer reading. Both approaches support “blended learning,” which Michael Horn defines as: “any time a student learns at least in part at a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home and at least in part through online delivery with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace” (Horn, 2011).

Be sure to read the whole thing.

Implementing the Common Core: the Quantile Framework

The adoption of the Common Core State Standards is promoting the development of curriculum pathways that most states will collectively implement.  Many states have developed crosswalks or configuration maps to aid in this transition. Currently, most states are still waiting to see how the new common accountability assessments will be designed for the implementation of the new standards. 

According to the Great Lakes Comprehensive Center, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, and Indiana formed the Midwest Common Core consortia to work together to plan the best implementation.  “The Midwest Common Core Consortia creates an avenue for the five states to work together to share resources, knowledge, and promising practices to improve implementation of the Common Core State Standards across the region. The work of the consortia is focused on the areas of leadership, communication, alignment, teaching, and learning.”  Additionally, many states’ department of instruction have joined forces with CCSSO by employing the Common Core Standards Collaborative that focus on six principles of teaching and learning.  The implementation of the standards is still being discussed at the state level and only small populations of teachers have gained the tools that will enable them to transfer methods of instruction to the new standards.

Yet, during this transition, teachers in the classroom are beginning the school year still searching for more specific directions regarding instruction that will incorporate the new Common Core State Standards as well as the old state standards.  The Quantile Framework® of Mathematics can help teachers do this through the use of its website.  Quantile.com offers teachers the ability to find free, internet based resources aligned to both the former year’s state standards and the new Common Core standards. 

Through the website, teachers can access the Math Skills Database, by activating the Advanced Search tool. With this search engine teachers can create a list of their state’s curriculum standards and Common Core State Standards for the grade level they are teaching.  This tool gives teachers the ability to compare the two standards and find free resources that will complement both sets of standards. 

Users also have access to the “knowledge cluster” of each skill or concept demanded by the standard which provides a means of task analysis.  Having access to these knowledge clusters allows a teacher to reach struggling students who may be unfamiliar with some of the required prerequisite skills.

The implementation of the new Common Core State Standards will require patience and planning to best allow educators to thoroughly address the new standards.  In the meantime, the Quantile Framework for Mathematics can provide support for educators as they move through this transition. 

The Dire Need for Quality Math and Science Instruction

Education Week recently included a summary (subscription required) of a report from the National Research Council on the need to place the same amount of emphasis on science as math.  Unfortunately, as the report indicates science education suffers from benign neglect and is not treated equally. TIMSS data confirms this sentiment: In the United States, on average, fourth graders are provided 4.2 hours per week of instruction in mathematics while the science instruction they receive is only allotted 2.7 hours each week.

When one examines the classroom instruction time devoted to science as a percent of total instructional time across countries in fourth grade one finds that the United States is below such countries as Armenia, Austria, Chinese Taipei, Colombia, El Salvador, Germany, Iran, Japan, Singapore, Slovenia, and Yemen.  If we are going to compete with other countries in terms of the quality of our science instruction, we need, at a minimum, to devote as much instructional time. 

The direct consequence of this lack of instructional commitment leads to our alarmingly low percentage of bachelor and graduate degrees in the math and science fields. According to OECD data, the percentage of bachelor degrees awarded in mathematics and science has continued to drop from 17.1% in 1995 to 16.1% in 2007. Of the 34 countries where data was collected, 28 countries had a higher percentage of degrees awarded in mathematics and science than the United States. The percentage of graduate degrees awarded for mathematics and science is equally disheartening. A mere 12.7% of graduate degrees are awarded for mathematics and science in the United States. This percentage is significantly below Japan’s 47.6%, Austria’s 47.2%, Korea’s 38.7%, and the mean of 23.5% for all reporting OECD countries. (more…)

Core Ideas: A New Approach to Science Standards

Over the past year we’ve followed the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and have written on how the standards will aid educators and parents hoping to ensure that their students graduate ready for the rigors of college.  Earlier this month the New York Times reported that Achieve, Inc. is working to create a set of national standards based on a new framework for science, which was created over the course of the past year.

As the Times reports:

It is the latest in decades of efforts to improve the science knowledge of American students, who have typically ranked in the middle of the pack on international comparison tests. The research council, which is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, last weighed in on science education standards in 1996.

A new framework for improving American science education calls for paring the curriculum to focus on core ideas and teaching students more about how to approach and solve problems rather than just memorizing factual nuggets.

While the implementation process could take several years, Achieve has plans to complete its work on the standards by the end of the year, and is set to make drafts publicly available before then.  In an increasingly competitive global environment, it’s encouraging to see more groups support the effort to elevate educational standards across the U.S. and to improve the content knowledge of our students.

Literacy Across Content Areas: The How is as Important as the What

Here’s Rebecca Alber offering a strong argument for literacy as a critical skill across the content areas:

Here’s one way to look at it: Content is what we teach, but there is also the how, and this is where literacy instruction comes in. There are an endless number of engaging, effective strategies to get students to think about, write about, read about, and talk about the content you teach. The ultimate goal of literacy instruction is to build a student’s comprehension, writing skills, and overall skills in communication.

Ask yourself, how do I mostly convey the information and knowledge to my students? Do I turn primarily to straight lecture, or teacher talk? Or, do I allow multiple opportunities for students to discover information on their own?

Alber’s right.  Much recent attention has been given to STEM education and the importance of retaining our edge in areas like mathematics, engineering, and technology.  And the Common Core State Standards has recommended that students engage in increasingly sophisticated texts each year in order to prepare for the rigors of the post-secondary world.  Engaging students in a wide variety of text is, as Alber argues, an important way to improve a student’s comprehension skills. 

She goes on to remind us of the importance of matching texts to readers:

The days of believing that we could hand informational text or a novel to a student and assume he or she makes full meaning of it on their own is a teaching mode of the past. Whether we like it or not, regardless of the content we teach, we are all reading instructors.

Scaffolding the reading by using effective strategies for pre-, during, and after reading, such as: previewing text, reading for a purpose, making predictions and connections, think alouds, and using graphic organizers will support all our students, and not just struggling readers and English learners.

Another onus not only on English teachers, but all teachers as reading instructors? We need to inspire both a love for reading, and build reading stamina in our students (this means eyes and mind on the page for more than a minute!)

Because students must wrestle with higher levels of reading material and a greater proportion of informational text, the Lexile Framework provides an additional way to target students at their own reading level.  By matching students to text at their level, educators can help facilitate reading growth.  Additionally, using student Lexile measures can be an important part of determining which classroom strategies to employ and how much scaffolding may be required, whether in literacy or other content areas.

Be sure to read the whole thing for Alber’s specific recommendations on incorporating literacy across content silos.

Raising Standards: Fighting The Coming American Worker Shortage

A familiar topic these days is the state of our economy, particularly the volatile job market.   But as many employers have made clear, there is a disturbing shortage of skilled workers when it comes to positions that demand strong skills in math and science.  According to this recent article from CNNMoney, executives from major corporations are voicing their concerns on the standards set for today’s students in science, technology and mathematics.

 The group of executives, called Change the Equation, notes that only one fifth of today’s 8th graders are proficient or advanced in math, citing figures from national educational assessments.

 That’s cause for concern.  It appears that our country’s lead in math and science (which are prerequisites for careers in technology, engineering, and the sciences) has weakened considerably.  And without some change in our current trajectory, we will soon face a severe deficiency in homegrown talent

 The CEO-driven initiative launched last fall as part of the Obama administration’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign in response to forecasts that the U.S. will be short as many as 3 million high-skills workers by 2018, according to a Georgetown University report issued last year. Two thirds of those jobs will require at least some post-secondary education, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

 The good news is that the Common Core State Standards offer more rigorous standards across content areas, including math and science.  If adopted, the US can expect a higher set of standards to ensure that students graduate ready for the demands of college and career.  Not surprisingly, many employers support raising academic standards as a way to prevent excessive outsourcing and having to choose from within an unskilled workforce.

To tackle the predicted lack of qualified workers, Raytheon Co., a major defense contractor, has developed software to help state educators, lawmakers and others develop tailored plans to improve math and science education and workforce policies. Like other defense contractors and many government agencies, Raytheon needs homegrown talent because national security guidelines do not allow for easy outsourcing of work or importing workers.

We too recognize the importance of disciplines like mathematics in preparing students for the demands of the contemporary workforce.  Math at Home represents an attempt to keep students focused on math year round.  Math at Home allows educators, parents, and even students to match themselves to targeted math resources (games, worksheets, video tutorials, practice activities, etc…) based on current textbook lessons. In addition to linking to targeted math resources, Math at Home allows students to create multiple resource lists, which they can then share (through e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter) or save for a later date.  It’s our hope that Math at Home can play a small role in keeping students engaged in math activities all year and in helping prepare them for the rigors of life beyond high school.

A Historic Opportunity, A Worthy Destination

We’ve written extensively on the Common Core State Standards and the role they will play in the future of our nation’s educational system.  To date, 42 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have all shown their support for the Common Core by committing to implement the new national standards by 2014.  These standards set ambitious goals which, as Fernanda Santos of the NY Times reports, “…raise the bar not only on what students in every grade are expected to learn, but also on how teachers are expected to teach.” 

According to Santos, several schools are currently participating in a pilot program which is already highlighting some key differences in how material is being presented, assigned and evaluated.  Teachers are changing their lesson plans, approaching content differently, and being thoughtful in how they challenge their students – all in an effort to move students to the path of college and career readiness.

Supporters of the standards point out that holding all students accountable for the same material regardless of which state they live in will ensure that each child is receiving a quality education and will enable policy members to more accurately evaluate performance. 

Still these standards will be accompanied by their own set of challenges and, as Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who helped write the common core standards for how to incorporate reading into science instruction explains, “If I’m teaching fifth grade and I have a youngster in my class who reads as a first grader, throwing him a grade level-text is not going to do him any good, no matter what the standards say.”

Shanahan is right, and we’ve addressed this exact issue in the past:

The Lexile Framework for Reading offers a good starting point for educators and parents attempting to make decisions as to whether or not the complexity of a text is well-matched to the reading level of a particular reader.  As articulated by the Common Core State Standards, the Lexile Framework provides a good measure of the quantitative dimensions of a text.  Meaning, the Lexile measure reflects the types of words and sentences used in a particular text; and, when matched to the Lexile reading level of a student, provides useful information on the student’s likely level of comprehension.

Taking a student’s reading level into account is an important first step in providing appropriately matched texts to struggling readers.  By matching readers with the right level of challenge, educators have an opportunity to address students at the right level and to grow each student’s reading ability.  Using the Lexile measure – to gauge student progress and to match materials to the range of readers in a classroom – is an important starting point for advancing the reading level of each student, and for moving each student toward college and career readiness.

 We’re glad to see so many working to implement the standards across the curriculum and As Chester Finn Jr., an assistant secretary of education during the Reagan administration says, “the standards create a historic opportunity in that we now have a destination worth aiming for, but only time will tell if they’ll create historic change.”

One More Tool to Match Readers to Texts

The Lexile Framework for Reading offers a good starting point for educators and parents attempting to make decisions as to whether or not the complexity of a text is well-matched to the reading level of a particular reader.  As articulated by the Common Core State Standards, the Lexile Framework provides a good measure of the quantitative dimensions of a text.  Meaning, the Lexile measure reflects the types of words and sentences used in a particular text; and, when matched to the Lexile reading level of a student, provides useful information on the student’s likely level of comprehension.

Of course there are other things to consider.  A parent or educator should always consider more than just the Lexile measure when attempting to match a young reader to a particular text.  There are qualitative dimensions (themes and content) and reader/task considerations (context, background knowledge) that should be taken into account.  As with any tool, the Lexile Framework is most powerful when used appropriately and as intended – to help match readers to reading material based on text complexity and the reading level of the reader. 

Here is reading expert and CEO of TextProject, Freddy Hiebert offering some useful caveats to educators on using the Lexile Framework appropriately:

Children’s reading performances are heavily influenced by the vocabulary in a text.  Typical word frequency ranges for different grades are given in Table 2.  When word frequency averages are substantially lower than typical grade ranges, teachers should know that students might need some extra vocabulary support.  

And, always remember:  There are big differences in the styles and vocabulary of stories (narratives) and informational texts (content-area texts)…

…Teachers should use the lexile rating as an initial piece of information, much like a check of someone’s temperature.   A temperature can be high or low for lots of different reasons.  The average sentence length and average word frequency gives teachers more specific information that is useful for decision-making.

Hiebert’s cautions are well-taken.  Educators and parents should always consider context when using Lexile measures to assign texts.  Additionally, they should take genre and concept density into account as they seek to match readers to texts.  As Hiebert reminds us, Lexile measures are an excellent starting point when considering the level of text that is appropriate for readers; and the Lexile Framework is a worthwhile addition to the various tools that educators bring to bear in the classroom.

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.