The Becoming Radical: Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency
Few issues in education seem more important or more universally embraced (from so-called progressive educators to right-wing politicians such as Jeb Bush) than the need to have all children reading on grade level—specifically by that magical third grade:
Five years ago, communities across the country formed a network aimed at getting more of their students reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade. States, cities, counties, nonprofit organizations, and foundations in 168 communities, spread across 41 states and the District of Columbia, are now a part of that initiative, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.
However, advocating that all students must read at grade level—often defined as reading proficiency—rarely acknowledges the foundational problems with those goals: identifying text by a formula claiming “grade level” and then identifying children as readers by association with those readability formulas.
This text, some claim, is a fifth-grade text, and thus children who can “read” that text independently are at the fifth-grade reading level.
While all this seems quite scientific and manageable, I must call hokum—the sort of technocratic hokum that daily ruins children as readers, under-prepares children as literate and autonomous humans, and further erodes literacy as mostly testable literacy.
So who does this grade-level reading and proficiency benefit?
First, lets consider what anyone means by “reading.” For the sake of discussion, this is oversimplified, but I think, not distorting to the point of misleading. Reading may be essentially decoding, pronouncing words, phrases, and clauses with enough fluency to give the impression of understanding. Reading may be comprehension, strategies and then behaviors or artifacts by a reader that mostly represent (usually in different and fewer words) an accurate or mostly accurate, but unqualified, restating of the original text.
But reading may also (I would add should) be critical literacy, the investigating of text that moves beyond comprehension and places both text and “meaning” in the dynamic of reader, writer, and text (Rosenblatt) as well as how that text is bound by issues of power while also working against the boundaries of power, history, and the limitations of language.
In that framing, then, grade-level reading and proficiency are trapped mostly at decoding and comprehension, promoting the argument that all meaning is in the text only (a shared but anemic claim of New Criticism).
This narrow and inadequate view of text and reading (and readers) serves authoritarian approaches to teaching and mechanistic structures of testing, and more broadly, reducing text and reading to mere technical matters serves mostly goals of surveillance and control.
Consider first the allure of formula that masks the arbitrary nature of formula. Plug “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams into a readability calculator—first in its poetic format of lines and stanzas, and then as a grammatical sentence.
As a poem, apparently, the text is about 4th grade, but as a sentence, nearly 9th grade.
The problem is that readability formulas and claims of “grade level” are entirely the function of the limitations of math (the necessity to quantify and then the byproduct of honoring only that which can be quantified)—counting word syllables, number of words in sentences.
Reducing text to numbers, reducing students to numbers—both perpetuate a static and thus false view of text and reading. “Meaning” is not static, but temporal, shifting, and more discourse or debate than pronouncement.
“The Red Wheelbarrow” is really “easy” to read, both aloud and to comprehend. But readability formulas address nothing about genre or form, nothing about the rich intent of the writer (for example, poetry often presents only a small fraction of the larger context), nothing about all that that various readers bring to the text.
And to the last point, when we confront reading on grade level or reading proficiency, we must begin to unpack how and why any reader is investigating a text.
As I have detailed, we can take a children’s picture book—which by all technical matters is at primary or elementary grade levels—and add complex lenses of analysis, rendering the same text extremely complex—with a meaning that is expanding instead of static and singular.
Text complexity, readers’ grade level, and concurrent hokum such as months or years of learning are the grand distractions of technocrats: “it is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing” (The Tragedy of Macbeth, 5, 5).
Grand pronouncements about grade-level reading and proficiency, then, benefit politicians, textbook companies, and the exploding testing industry. But not children, not literacy, and not democracy.
Leveled books, labeled children, and warped education policy (grade retention based on high-stakes testing) destroy reading and the children advocates claim to be serving.
Thus, alas, there is simply no reading crisis and no urgency to have students on grade level, by third or any grade.
The cult of proficiency and grade-level reading is simply the lingering “cult of efficiency” that plagues formal education in the U.S.—quantification for quantification’s sake, children and literacy be damned.
21st Century Literacy If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate?, Schmidt and Thomas
Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
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