I’ve beaten the drum forever about the importance of building students’ content knowledge if we want to improve their reading comprehension, but another key insight from rigorous research is that kids will read better only if exposed to complex texts. This insight was embedded into the Common Core and other high-quality English language arts standards. But alas, this latest annual survey of K–12 reading habits from Renaissance Learning indicates that we still have a long way to go. If the data reported are to be believed—and there are some caveats—the bad news is that America’s students aren’t reading very much. But there’s worse news: Their reading is mostly low-level fare, despite the loud and consistent call over the last ten years for children to be pushed to read more complex texts.

A common assessment software in U.S. schools and classrooms, Renaissance Learning’s “Accelerated Reader” (AR) program allows teachers to track their students’ independent reading performance, including the amount of time they spend reading, their comprehension, and the complexity level of the books they read. Students select books and take short AR quizzes afterward. The cycle of reading and quizzes organically creates over time a database of the books read by 8.7 million students in over 28,000 schools, representing all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

Collectively they read 289 million books in the 2017–2018 school year. But that’s a lot less than it sounds. The data show that about half of U.S. students read less than 15 minutes a day. Moreover, time spend reading peaks in the late elementary years, then declines sharply as kids enter middle school, and craters in high school when they read just eight minutes a day in eleventh and twelfth grade.

More concerning is the low level of challenge the data surface. Not surprisingly, students choose more challenging texts as they move up in age and grade. However, the increases in complexity are small from year to year, and without exception at the very bottom of the recommended reading range for any given grade. Accelerated Reader scores books using something called an “ATOS” score—a proprietary measure of readability and text complexity. So for example, during the 2017–2018 school year, the report shows that “869,110 sixth graders each read, on average, 15.9 books and 391,419 words.” The average ATOS level for those books is 4.5, meaning the text could likely be read independently by a student whose reading skills are typical of a fourth grader in the fifth month of school (remember this is for sixth grade). By twelfth grade, reading volume collapses to 4.7 books read and, on average, about 246,000 words, while complexity has crept up only incrementally. As the report notes, “a huge disparity exists between the books high school seniors are reading (ATOS: 5.6), compared to materials they will likely need to comprehend and use upon graduation, such as college texts (13.8), fiction and nonfiction best sellers (7.3), popular media (10.4), and career documents (10.6).”

Despite the massive dataset, a few cautions are in order. We can’t assume that every book a kid reads gets captured. The program may not capture a significant volume of reading outside of ELA classes. Only the books on which they take AR quizzes are counted, so it could lowball the data. And the program is much more commonly used in middle school and (especially) elementary school. It’s also possible that AR isn't fully accounting for more rigorous texts kids are reading in guided reading groups or other more intensive forms of small group instruction, but even if the dataset only captures independent reading, it's not a pretty picture. The report is shot through with concerns from Renaissance itself about the low level of challenge in What Kids Are Reading.

Finally, a quick glance of the lists of the twenty most popular books read at each grade level, a fascinating feature of the report and a glimpse into the habits and tastes of kids, show that series like Captain Underpants and Diary of the Wimpy Kid books dominate upper elementary and middle school grades. (The Harry Potter phenomenon appears to have crashed, with those books appearing near the bottom of the top-twenty lists, and only in middle school.) By high school meatier reads like To Kill a Mockingbird (the #1 ninth grade book), Romeo and Juliet (#3), Elie Wiesel’s Night (#5), and Animal Farm (#8) are still well represented—and with “ATOS” scores that often belie their thematic nuance and depth. So perhaps all is not lost.

SOURCE: “What Kids Are Reading,” Renaissance (2019).

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a senior advisor to Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools based in Harlem, New York. He writes and speaks extensively on education and education-reform issues, with an emphasis on literacy, curriculum, teaching, and urban education. After twenty years in…

View Full Bio