Policy Brief: Bridging the Readiness Gap

Recently, we released our first of many policy briefs written by our very own Dr. Malbert Smith III, MetaMetrics’ President and Co-Founder.

MetaMetrics is focused on improving education for learners of all ages. For over twenty years, our work has been increasingly recognized for its distinct value in differentiating instruction and personalizing learning.  For example, our research on post secondary reading demands, on what it means to be college and career ready, informed the Common Core State Standards.

In addition to the white papers and position papers we publish throughout the year, our policy briefs will encompass research on a variety of educational issues, such as closing the achievement gap, next-generation assessments, and college- and career-readiness. The policy briefs will explore potential ways to address these critical issues by focusing on education as the foundation of student success and the stepping stone to social and economic growth in our country.

The first brief is titled “Bridging the Readiness Gap: Demystifying Required Reading Levels for Post-secondary Pursuits.” An executive summary is below and the entire brief is available in both HTML and PDF formats:

What does it mean to be “college- and career-ready?” According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Holy Grail of education is to ensure that all high school graduates are adequately prepared for their academic and professional pursuits. This goal underscores the current national educational reform agenda-both Race to the Top requirements and Common Core criteria advocate standards that build toward and ensure college and career readiness. While many factors comprise readiness, one of the most important is the ability to read and comprehend complex texts. And although our research shows a significant gap between the text demands of high school and the post-secondary world, progress has already been made in reconsidering the entire scope of the P-20 educational landscape. Using our research, Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards demonstrates how the text continuum can be redrawn by Lexile grade bands so that educators and administrators have a reliable road map to make sure students are building the reading skills necessary to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities that await them. By forecasting deficiencies in reading ability, we can demystify the “readiness gap,” raise the bar for reading achievement, and better prepare students for success in their post-secondary endeavors.

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A Simple Prescription: Write More, Read More – And Often

A tip of the hat to the Marshall Memo for pointing to this recent article by Deborah Hollimon in Reading Today.  In “It’s Simple: Read More, Write More, Teach Vocabulary”(subscription required), Hollimon’s suggestions are right in line with the research of Anders Ericsson.  Here’s Hollimon getting straight to the point:

What our students need are opportunities for voracious reading in classes brimming with engaging materials of all sorts, at many different levels… Reading means reading something engaging in every class, every day.

We could not agree more.  We’ve written extensively on the importance of students reading more.  First, Ericson’s research on what it takes to move from novice to expert is informative here.  Critical to the development of expertise is time on task, or practice.  In other words, if students wish to become better readers, they then obviously must spend more time engaged in reading.  Second, the Common Core State Standards has established a proposed ‘staircase’ of text complexity.  That document recommends that students face the challenge of increasingly complex texts as they progress from grade to grade.  Third, Nell Duke, among others, including, again, the Common Core State Standards, recommends that students must learn to grapple with a wide variety of texts.   To put it another way, a student brought up on a steady diet of fiction will find himself ill-prepared to face the challenge of real-world, informational text as they move into college or the workplace.  Duke, like Hollimon, recommends that students be exposed to informational text from a much earlier age.

On writing, Hollimon is even more succinct:

Writing more means writing every day, in every class, mostly without fear of red ink… Content teachers can easily incorporate quick-writes, exit slips, learning logs, or journals into daily lessons. What better way for teachers to check for understanding than to peruse the writing thoughts of their students?

We would echo Hollimon’s point on writing more.  Targeted and deliberate practice applies across a range of human activities, including writing.  Our personalized learning platforms, Oasis and MyWritingWeb were built around the very simple idea of allowing students to engage in daily, deliberate, and targeted practice in reading and writing.  Hollimon’s ideas on easy ways to incorporate writing into the content areas mirror our own belief that writing should occur across content areas and need not be limited to full-length, 3-5 page essays.  MyWritingWeb and Oasis, for example, allow students to write essays of any length, giving students plentiful opportunity to practice and teachers an easy and administratively painless way to keep students writing more.  And because both Oasis and MyWritingWeb are based on the Lexile Framework for Writing, educators have the added benefit of being able to monitor student growth in the domain of writing. 

If you haven’t yet checked out these platforms, be sure to take a look.

New York Moves Toward College Readiness

Last week, Sharon Otterman of the NY Times shared some unfortunate news :

New York State education officials released a new set of graduation statistics on Monday that show fewer than half of students in the state are leaving high school prepared for college and well-paying careers.

The new statistics, part of a push to realign state standards with college performance, show that only 23 percent of students in New York City graduated read for college or careers in 2009, not counting special-education students.  That is well under half the current graduation rate of 64 percent…

Those are troubling statistics.  Not only are NYC schools only graduating 2/3 of their students, but of those students, most are not prepared to enter the workforce, or successfully complete freshman level college courses.  Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents (the group that makes educational policy decisions for the state), says, “…if you sit on this, you become the Enron of test scores, the Enron of graduation rates.  We need to indicate exactly what it all means, especially since we’ve already said that college-ready should be the indicator of high school completion.”

Tisch and other members of the Board of Regents have already begun taking steps to remedy this situation.  Just last month the group announced new assessment standards they plan to implement in addition to their adoption last July of the national Common Core State Standards.   As we’ve mentioned before, the Common Core provides educators with valuable resources to help move students toward college and career readiness.  The Lexile Framework for Reading is one such tool which allows educators to place text demand and student reading ability on the same vertical scale.  This provides an opportunity to not only measure individual growth, but also defines how much growth is required for an individual to be prepared to meet post-secondary demands.  Kudos to New York for taking action to move their students toward college and career readiness.

Traversing the Texts: An Appreciation of Text Complexity

Here’s Mark Bauerlein over at Education Leadership offering a useful reminder on the importance of the ability to tackle complex texts:

Will more technology in high school classrooms help? Not in the crucial area of reading. When teachers fill the syllabus with digital texts, having students read and write blogs, wikis, Facebook pages, multimedia assemblages, and the like, they do little to address the primary reason that so many students end up not ready for college-level reading. When they assign traditional texts—novels, speeches, science articles, and so on—in digital format with embedded links, hypertext, word-search capability, and other aids, they likewise avoid the primary cause of unreadiness.

That cause is, precisely, the inability to grasp complex texts…

Bauerlein’s concern is that many of the post-secondary texts with which students must wrestle are inherently ambiguous, e.g. a supreme court decision, a poem, a philosophical treatise, a contract, etc…  Their meanings are best  teased out through a deep and reflective reading.  In addition to being constructively ambiguous, many of the texts with which students must struggle (think Emerson, Nietzsche, Holmes, Freud, etc…) are not capable of being reduced to a few simple pages or bullet points (to paraphrase one philosopher, any system of thought capable of being reduced to a nutshell belongs there…).  Many of our most cherished texts and documents are  expansive, self-contained works, rich in meaning and related to a long canon of work.  As Bauerlein argues, Thoreau’s assertion that he went into the woods because he wished to live deliberately or Nietzsche’s assertions about claims of knowledge are not easily grasped by reading over the first few pages.  The reader is expected to critically reflect over the pages and to locate the writer’s meaning in the fuller context of the writing:

When faced with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, an epic poem, or an ethical treatise—works characterized by dense meanings, elaborate structure, sophisticated vocabulary, and subtle authorial intentions—college-ready students plod through them. Unready students falter.

This is the sort of task that does not lend itself to distraction.  To paraphrase Bauerlein, a reader trekking through Locke’s political treatises is unlikely to make it very far if they are simultaneously updating their Facebook status, tweeting their latest thought, popping up a blog entry, streaming Pandora, and clicking on hyperlinks through the margins.  For this is not the sort of reading that lends itself to browsers.  Many of our most valuable and cherished texts, the ones most worth reading, reveal their import through a focused and deep absorption into the text.

That’s not to minimize the importance of technology in the classroom or the important role that personalized learning platforms can play in differentiating texts for struggling readers.  And Bauerlein is careful to avoid nostalgic claims about the destructive influence of online reading or the Internet destroying our mental capacities.  Instead, he merely suggests that more attention should be paid to deep and meaningful reading, to the undistracted and focused reading of high level texts; and that time should be set aside to allow students to explore these sophisticated texts in a distraction-free (meaning, unplugged) zone.

In that sense, Bauerlein’s concern echoes what both the Common Core State Standards and a study by Nell Duke have already pointed to: that American students are reading far too little informational texts.  As we’ve written before, for a student raised on a diet of fiction, a strong dose of informational texts may come as a shock to the system.  It’s little wonder then that many students graduate unprepared for the rigors of the post-secondary world, that they arrive at the university only to find that even introductory texts present a formidable challenge.   Nell Duke argues that students should be exposed to informational texts at an earlier age and the Common Core State Standards attempts to address that deficiency by pushing for increased exposure to informational texts at a higher rate and at an earlier age.

 Bauerlein’s suggestion is worth considering.  With far too many students finding themselves ill-prepared for the rigors of the post-secondary world, it’s our hope that encouraging students to tackle higher levels of targeted texts at an earlier age will move them ever closer to the levels of texts they will undoubtedly encounter in life after high school.

Forging A Path Toward College & Career Readiness

Much has already been written on the dangers of graduating unprepared to face the reading demands now found throughout universities and the workplace. There’s been ample research demonstrating that many of today’s high school seniors are graduating ill-prepared to tackle the rigors of the post-secondary world .  Even those students who qualify as ‘proficient’ within the boundaries of their own state find that proficiency does not necessarily entail readiness for the reading demands of life after graduation.  Declining levels of text complexity at the high school level translate into less rigor and many students are unfamiliar with richer, more complex texts,  which is why so many universities have witnessed an increase in the number of freshmen enrolled in remedial, first-year courses. 

Fortunately, the Common Core State Standards Initiative offers a clear trajectory toward college and career readiness, though a recent report from ACT shows just how much work many states have to do to place their students on a track toward college and career readiness.  A sample of 250,000 high school juniors, for example, found that the students were unprepared for the standards proposed by the Common Core.  Within English/Language Arts, only 38 percent were proficient in reading and a little more than half were proficient in writing and in language. Students were especially weak in science literacy and only 37 percent showed proficiency in statistics and probability. The weakest area in math was number and quantity.   The ACT report goes further than just analysis, however, and offers some suggestions on how states, districts, and schools can support the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.  

Another recently released study, REL Southwest’s How Prepared are Students for College-Level Reading? Applying a Lexile®-Based Approach, offers a real-world perspective for measuring the effectiveness of preparing students for post-secondary success. Using The Lexile Framework for Reading, the study matched student scores on an exit-level Texas English language arts and reading assessment with college English textbooks to gauge students’ ability to read and comprehend the books used in entry-level English courses throughout the University of Texas system: (more…)

Training Education’s Leaders

Education Week reports (subscription required) on a new initiative announced last fall “aimed at changing the way America’s principals are recruited and prepared-and how they run schools.”  The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) program, which will be managed by the nonpartisan George W. Bush Institute, is intended to provide educators with strong the strong leadership they have asked for:

Set to begin in six cities, the initiative aims to seed and nurture consortia of colleges, districts and private organizations across the country that will work together to train principals in nontraditional ways and in field-based settings.  It also looks to broaden the talent pool for the profession by tapping into organizations such as Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools to recruit a different set of school leaders.

Each city’s program will vary as each will be controlled by a different group of organizations, ranging from local school districts and universities to corporate partners, such as AT&T.  James Guthrie, director of education policy studies for the institute explains that while these differences may yield fluctuations in results, the program was designed in this manner enabling the group to evaluate the efficacy of multiple approaches. 

For those who see the development of effective principals as a key factor in helping schools align with the Common Core State Standards, the AREL program, along with programs like New Leaders for New Schools, has the potential to facilitate a shift in thinking and assist educators in moving students from proficiency to college and career readiness.

Crisis of Confidence: U.S. Teens Worry Over Nation’s Math Ability

A recent Education Week article (subscription required) suggests that our teens may be overconfident in their math and science abilities. Out of 1,000 students surveyed, many reported feeling confident in their math preparedness and 68 percent agreed that math and science skills will be a requirement of most jobs, with 58 percent reporting a desire to work in a related field. However, when asked which country was best at math and science, 67 percent selected Japan or China and only 44% viewed mathematics as important to “solving society’s big problems.”

Intel, the corporation that conducted the study, believes that this study indicates the bar needs to be raised for American students. Shelly Esque, vice president of Intel’s Corporate Affairs Group, said: “We need innovative programs that celebrate not just “making the grade,” but taking the challenging courses that will prepare our students for the careers of the future.”

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is an attempt to align state curriculum standards with the demands of college and career.  That’s been our focus at MetaMetrics as well, and we’ve put together a variety of resources to demonstrate how both the Lexile® and Quantile® measures support the Common Core State Standards’ goal of preparing all students for college and careers.   Going a step further, we’ve also developed utilities that match readers to books of their choice based on their current reading level.  And our mathematics utilities assist educators and parents by allowing students to access differentiated math resources.  If you haven’t already, I encourage you to take a look.

Essays on Demand: The Desperation of the Unprepared

Here’s The Chronicle of Higher Education offering an appalling view into the seedier side of post-secondary education.  In The Shadow Scholar, academic mercenary, Ed Dante (a pseudonym), chronicles his experience as a ghost-writer for hire.  Dante works for a custom-essay company, an organization birthed from the deficiencies of students ill-prepared for the academic rigors of university life and dedicated to churning out essays for students to pass off as their own:

 The request came in by e-mail around 2 in the afternoon. It was from a previous customer, and she had urgent business. I quote her message here verbatim (if I had to put up with it, so should you): “You did me business ethics propsal for me I need propsal got approved pls can you will write me paper?”

I’ve gotten pretty good at interpreting this kind of correspondence. The client had attached a document from her professor with details about the paper. She needed the first section in a week. Seventy-five pages.

I told her no problem.

It truly was no problem. In the past year, I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines. But you won’t find my name on a single paper.

There’s no gray area here.  Even the most adept sophist would be hard-pressed to dress this practice up  as anything other than plagiarism – a practice we’d prefer to view as a rare mistep  by the desperate few.  That might be a mistake.  Dante argues that the practice of paying others to produce essays is far more pervasive than most would like to believe.  And it’s not constrained to a particular discipline or department.  Moral ambivalence, apparently, goes all the way down.  Unable, or unwilling, to produce even marginally competent work has led both graduates and undergraduates alike to enlist the help of writers, like Dante, to churn out thoughtful work that they can turn in as their own.  And, as Dante writes, there’s no pattern to the customer base.  The clientele is just as varied as the topics on which they refuse to write: (more…)

And Then There Were Thirty-Nine

As the National Governors Association is reporting, thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have now adopted the Common Core State Standards.  Those states include: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, U.S. Virgin Islands, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Click here and here for more information on the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Bridging the Readiness Gap

In the latest issue of Chiefline, the newsletter for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), our own Malbert Smith offers a clear reminder of the importance of establishing empirical standards for whether students have met reading requirements:

Common Core Standards have uncovered alarming trends in terms of student understanding of complex texts, including the downward trend in secondary education’s use of complex tests while post-secondary schools have increased the use of those texts. Recent studies reveal a gap of 65L to 230L between the demands placed on high school seniors and the difficulty of post-secondary texts based on median Lexile measures. A gap of 250L can translate into high school seniors understanding their 12th grade texts to only understanding about 50 percent of their college texts. To appropriately modify the P-20 landscape, educators must do away with labels like “proficient” in favor of empirical evidence of whether students have met reading standards, and lawmakers must adopt standards that evaluate the expectations each grade should use as a guideline.

Smith rightly argues  for utilizing a clear way to assess student reading level.  After all, evidence indicates that the text demand of secondary resources has been steadily declining, while the text demand of post-secondary texts has been on the rise.  Characterizations like ‘proficient’ or ‘satisfactory’ fail to identify a student’s readiness for the demands of the post-secondary world.  A metric, like the Lexile Framework, places both the reader and text on the same scale, thereby establishing a clear way to assess a student’s reading level in relation to the material to be read.  And by comparing the text demand of college resources educators are better able to assess student preparedness for college level text before a student even begins his post-secondary work.

Read the whole thing.

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.