What do the Common Core State Standards Mean for Reading Assignments? A New Report Takes a Look.

What does it mean to “raise the bar” in schools? How will the College and Career Ready Standards do that?

A+ advocates for raising the bar so that students graduate from high school actually prepared for real life, whether they’re going on to college or straight into a career. We want Alabama’s high school graduates to be able to not only compete, but also excel in a global economy, which is why we are pleased to be a founding member of Alabama GRIT – Graduate Ready. Impact Tomorrow.

The College and Career Ready standards are an important first step to raising the bar, but actually teaching students at higher levels takes the work of teachers in classrooms. They will have to improve their lessons to make sure students are learning at higher levels and gaining a true understanding of the material.

Since the CCRS in math were implemented last year, we’ve already seen this take place. This year in Alabama, schools are implementing the new English language arts (ELA) standards. Around the country, other states are implementing the standards at their own paces.

A new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments by Tim Shanahan with Ann Duffett, looks at implementation of the ELA standards nationwide. It surveyed teachers to ask them about texts and instructional techniques they are using. The results are “hopeful,” but the report’s introduction gives a stellar recounting of how the United States got into it’s current dilemma regarding teaching students to read.

The Forward of the report, by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Kathleen Porter-Magee, is printed in full here (with a few minor tweaks to make it easier to read):

Forward and Summary from Common Core in the Schools: A First Look at the Reading Assignments
Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Kathleen Porter-Magee

For more than two decades, states have been working to delineate what students should know and be able to do in English language arts (ELA) and math across grades K-12. Beginning in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) demanded that each state assess student reading and math achievement annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Schools and districts were to be held to account for ensuring that students met or exceeded state proficiency goals in those two subjects.

These efforts seem to have made an impact in math, where achievement in the earlier grades rose between 2001 and 2012. In reading, however, scores have barely budged. At the same time, the federal government pushed its Reading First initiative, which aimed to ensure that all schools based their reading instruction in grades K-3 on reading science, particularly as delineated by the National Reading Panel, and including a full dose of phonics and phonemic awareness.

How can it be that a nationwide push to improve reading has had only a negligible impact on overall reading achievement, even among our nation’s highest-performing districts and schools? How can it be that a country that has been working so hard to boost its students’ prowess in this key subject— arguably since Rudolf Flesch first raised awareness of the problem in 1955 with his much-discussed book, Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It—has made such paltry gains? Why are other countries surpassing us on international gauges of student reading performance such as PIRLS and PISA? Why are SAT and ACT English scores also flat (or worse)?


Part of the answer, of course, can be found in the fiercely fought “reading wars” over such issues as “phonics versus ‘whole language.’” Never mind that thirteen years ago the National Reading Panel— following and improving upon a path first marked by Jeanne Chall back in 1967—produced solid proof that a strong early-reading program, the kind that works for the vast majority of children, rests on five instructional “pillars.” The “reading wars” continued regardless. So did commercial rivalries and professional jealousies in this crowded field.

We suspected that there might still be more to this complicated and rather depressing picture—and to investigate that possibility we at the Fordham Institute resolved to probe into several possible contributing factors.

First, while No Child Left Behind compelled each state to set ELA (as well as math) standards, their quality and rigor varied wildly. Our most recent review of state ELA standards found that only fourteen states earned an A or B for the quality, content, and rigor of their K-12 ELA standards. Twenty-one states earned a D or an F. This means that, while states may have set standards, the expectations guiding teaching and learning did little to advance quality curriculum and instruction.

Even more troubling, states set their “proficiency” bars at very different levels. That meant a student who was judged “proficient” in reading in one state could be deemed “below basic” in another.

Second, one of the most-discussed (and unintended) side effects of the NCLB era has been that, in an effort to improve reading and math achievement, schools have sidelined other vital subjects such as history and science. This might seem logical from a school perspective—after all, it’s difficult to understand those meaty subjects until students can read. Yet reading comprehension itself depends on content knowledge and vocabulary, not just successfully “decoding” groups of letters and words. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. eloquently explained in a 2003 article, when NCLB implementation was barely underway:

“After several decades of researching this difficult subject of reading comprehension from varied angles in the humanities and sciences, I can report that although what we don’t know still far exceeds what we do, there is current scientific agreement on at least three principles that have useful implications for improving students’ reading comprehension. The three principles (which subsume a number of others) are these:

  1. Fluency allows the mind to concentrate on comprehension;
  2. Breadth of vocabulary increases comprehension and facilitates further learning; and
  3. Domain knowledge, the most recently understood principle, increases fluency, broadens vocabulary, and enables deeper comprehension.”[1]

Tons of research underline the links among vocabulary, background knowledge, and reading comprehension. And NAEP results show a strong correlation between reading achievement and vocabulary. Specifically, results show that:

  • Fourth-grade students performing above the 75th percentile in reading comprehension in 2011 also had the cohort’s highest average vocabulary scores.
  • Lower-performing fourth graders (at or below the 25th percentile in reading comprehension) had the lowest average vocabulary scores.

Similar patterns were evident for grade 8 in 2011 and for grade 12 in 2009. (Grade 12 was not assessed in 2011.)

This makes sense when you consider that it is knowledge and vocabulary, not skills mastery, which helps students improve comprehension once they’ve learned how to decode. This is something that cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has studied extensively. “Teaching reading strategies is a low-cost way to give developing readers a boost,” Willingham explains in a 2006 American Educator article, “but it should be a small part of a teacher’s job. Acquiring a broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge will yield more substantial and longer-term benefits.”[2]

Yet in trying to improve reading comprehension, schools made a tragic mistake: they took time away from knowledge-building courses such as science and history to clear the decks for more time on reading skills and strategies.[3] And the impact, particularly on our most disadvantaged students whose content and vocabulary gap is so great, has been devastating.

Third, while teachers shifted time away from content to devote more to reading skills and strategies, the complexity of the texts they assigned in class was actually declining. A host of factors contributed to this decline. Too many people believe—incorrectly—that the best way to encourage students to read is to feed them a steady diet of “relevant” and easily digested books. As a result, classic literature has, in many classrooms, been replaced by popular teen novels (often made into movies) such as The Hunger Games and Twilight. Indeed, the former, according to Renaissance Learning (more below), became the most widely read book in grades 9-12 following its theatrical release in 2012. Yet it is pegged at a fifth-grade reading level. Worse, a number of popular reading curricula, such as the Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop, actually discourage teachers from assigning texts thought to be challenging for students. These programs encourage teachers to assess student reading levels regularly and then assign texts that are “just right”—i.e., at the individual student’s “instructional” or “individual” reading level. Texts that are more difficult—and might fall into a student’s “frustration” level—are deemed simply too difficult and therefore to be shunned.

Evidence of the decline in text complexity can be found in many places. In 2010, for instance, The Forum, a journal of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, published the results of a national survey of high school teachers led by Dr. Sandra Stotsky. She had undertaken to “find out what works of literature teachers in grades 9, 10, and 11 in public schools assign in standard and honors classes, and what approaches they use for teaching students how to understand imaginative fiction and literary non-fiction.” The results of Stotsky’s research were startling. She found:

  • The works of literature and literary nonfiction assigned across grades 9, 10, and 11 did not increase in difficulty.
  • “Teachers of standard and honors course [did] not regularly engage students in close analytical reading of assigned works. They [did] draw on a variety of approaches for literary study, including close reading, but they [were] more likely to use a non-analytical approach to interpret a work (e.g., a personal response or a focus on a work’s historical, cultural, or biographical context) than to undertake a careful analysis of the work itself.”[4]

Similarly, research published in 2009 by Renaissance Learning (the company that produces the “Accelerated Reader” program) found that “Ten of the top 16 most frequently read books by the 1,500 students in the top ten percent of reading achievement in grades 9-12 in the database for the 2008-2009 academic year were contemporary young adult fantasies.” Even more alarming, the report showed that a majority of the most-read books in high school were only at the middle school level in terms of text complexity. That study also showed that students read few nonfiction titles, and that most of the nonfiction was autobiographical.

Besides assigning “easy stuff” to kids to read, and then not expecting them to read closely or analytically, plenty else was afoot in the education world that turned out to be damaging to students’ reading prowess.

In the minds of many educators, an absurd yet enduring distinction was drawn between “skills” and “content”—which proved bad for both. Although the folly of this was made clear in 1987, both by Hirsch’s celebrated Cultural Literacy and by Diane Ravitch and one of the present authors (Chester E. Finn, Jr.) in What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, actual knowledge was sent to the back of the classroom.

Pedagogy suffered, too, as teachers were admonished to function as “guides on the side” rather
than “sages on the stage.” They were told to concentrate on self-esteem building rather than honest feedback to students of the sort that might lead them to do something different and better next time. Both texts and tests were scrutinized for possible “bias,” and over-caution and hypersensitivity on this front led to both becoming banal. This had the effect of making many of them boring and dull, hence not really worth reading—and certainly not worth reading deeply.

Put all of the malign influences together and it’s no surprise that American students were not being challenged to read appropriately complex books, to do high-level analytical work, or to steep themselves in the kinds of literary nonfiction or informational texts that might help them make significant gains in reading comprehension.

The Common Core

Less than a decade into NCLB implementation, state leaders recognized that their efforts to improve reading achievement were falling short. Many were aware of the varying quality of state standards and assessments and, brought together by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, they set out to draft a set of clearer and more rigorous K-12 standards for English language arts (and for mathematics).

That work culminated in the June 2010 release of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects (CCSS). These new K-12 expectations were different in several ways. They were the first viable set of “common” standards. More than that, they were better—clearer, more rigorous, and more focused on the essential work students should be doing—than the vast majority of state standards they hoped to replace.

We reviewed the final Common Core ELA standards in 2010 and found that their expectations were “clearly superior” to the standards that were in use in thirty-seven states and that it was “too close to call” for another eleven states. More specifically, our expert reviewers found that the CCSS “are particularly strong when it comes to providing useful and explicit guidance about the quality and complexity of reading and writing that should be expected of students each year, including providing annotated samples of student writing.”

The Common Core also shows clear progressions of learning from grade to grade. For instance, Reading Standard 3 asks students, by the time they graduate from high school, to be able to “Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.” The standards then provide grade-specific expectations that show how this sequence might build from grade to grade. In Kindergarten, for example, the corresponding Reading Standard 3 explains that students should “identify characters, settings, and main events in a story.” By first grade, they are asked to “describe characters, settings, and main events.” By fifth grade, this standard has evolved and asks students to:

“Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.”

And, by the end of high school, it becomes:

“Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).”

How, exactly, do these Common Core expectations differ from the state standards they replaced?
The most important differences can be summarized by three “instructional shifts.” In short, the CCSS aim to:

  1. Build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and informational texts.
  2. Focus student work on reading and writing grounded in evidence from text.
  3. Encourage regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary.

These shifts have profound implications for ELA curriculum and instruction. The Common Core State Standards are among the first standards to stress the crucial link between knowledge and reading comprehension—something that will, if faithfully implemented, force many teachers to rethink whether their preferred reading programs meet the content and rigor demands of the CCSS. And this important shift serves to correct the fact that, for too many years, students have had little access to the kinds of literary nonfiction and informational texts they need to prepare them for the rigor of advanced coursework in college and beyond.

The Common Core unambiguously expects “regular practice” with suitably complex texts. In the past, state ELA standards tacitly called for students to be able to read and understand grade-appropriate text by year’s end. The Common Core, by contrast, recognizes that the only way to achieve that goal is to expose students to complex texts throughout the year.

What’s more, the Common Core emphasizes reading (and writing) “grounded in evidence from the text.” Whereas students in the past may have read something, then moved immediately to write personal responses and narratives, the Common Core pushes them and their teachers to stay with the text—to use the author’s words and other evidence within the text to answer questions and to support analysis. This is precisely the kind of close reading and analytical practice that students need to push comprehension and deepen “critical thinking” skills.

But will these shifts make their way into American classrooms? That is the question we sought to examine through the present study.


Within months of the release of the final draft of the Common Core State Standards, forty-six states and the District of Columbia had adopted the CCSS standards for English language arts. Soon thereafter, districts and schools across most of the land began the hard work of implementing those standards. As part of our efforts to monitor CCSS implementation, we undertook a survey of ELA teachers from Common Core states, asking them to answer questions about the texts their students read and the instructional techniques they used in the classroom. This year’s data are meant to serve as a “baseline” that shows where we were in the very early stages of CCSS implementation. We plan to do a follow-up study in 2015 whereupon we will comment on whether the instructional shifts have taken hold.

Even today, we found some hopeful signs. Most teachers believe that the new standards promise better learning for their students, and a majority say that their schools have already made progress toward implementing the standards, including relevant curriculum changes and professional development. Some teachers say that they are already teaching with grade-level-appropriate texts, and that they already include at least some informational texts in their English language arts curriculum.

But findings from this survey also showed that the heavy lifting of aligning curriculum and instruction to the rigor of the CCSS mostly still lies ahead. Specifically:

  • The CCSS emphasize the centrality of text in the English language arts curriculum. Yet the majority of teachers still say their lessons are dominated by skills; they are more likely to try to fit texts to skills than to ground their skills instruction in what is appropriate to the texts they are teaching. Indeed, an astonishing 73 percent of elementary and 56 percent of middle school teachers place greater emphasis on reading skills than the text; high school teachers are more divided, with roughly equal portions prioritizing either skills or texts.
  • The Common Core asks teachers to assign texts that provide language complexity appropriate to the grade level, but significant proportions of teachers—particularly in the elementary grades—are still assigning texts based on students’ present reading prowess. Specifically, the majority of elementary teachers (64 percent) choose to match students with books presumed to align with their instructional reading levels. This happens less often in middle and high school, with approximately two in five middle school teachers selecting texts this way. This means that many youngsters are not yet working with appropriately complex language in their schoolbooks.
  • The CCSS call for students to have substantial experience reading informational texts (including literary nonfiction such as speeches and essays). Despite some public controversy over this, teachers indicated that they are already devoting significant proportions of time to teaching such texts in their classrooms. Nevertheless, many English language arts teachers (including 56 percent at the middle school level) assign none of the literary or informational texts listed in the survey, which represented both CCSS exemplars and other high-quality texts.[5]
  • The vast majority of teachers appear cautiously optimistic about the Common Core. Most (62 percent) indicated that, when surveyed in 2012, they thought the standards would have at least some positive learning benefits for their students (from a little bit to a great deal), while 11 percent thought that no learning gains would result and 18 percent said it was “too soon to tell.” These responses were consistent across the grades; elementary, middle school, and high school teachers characterized the standards similarly.


The promise and potential of standards- and accountability-driven reform is that, by setting clear and rigorous expectations for what students should know and be able to do, teachers can better prepare students for the more advanced work that they will be asked to do in later grades, in college, and beyond. In order for standards to have any impact, however, they must change classroom practice. In Common Core states, the shifts that these new expectations demand are based on the best research and information we have about how to boost students’ reading comprehension and analysis and thereby prepare them more successfully for college and careers. Whether those shifts will truly transform classroom practice, however, remains to be seen. Please stay tuned.


  1. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., “Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge—of Words and the World,” American Educator, Spring 2003, http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/spring2003/AE_SPRNG.pdf.
  2. Daniel T. Willingham, “How we Learn: Ask the Cognitive Scientist,” American Educator, Winter 2006/2007, http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/winter0607/CogSci.pdf.
  3. Martin West, Testing, Learning, and Teaching: The Effects of Test-based Accountability on Student Achievement and Instructional Time in Core Academic Subjects,” in Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children, Thomas B. Fordham Institute (Washington, D.C., 2007), 45-61.
  4. Sandra Stotsky, Joan Traffas, James Woodworth, Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey (Boston, MA: Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, Spring 2010).
  5. That said, we cannot know from these survey results how many teachers may be assigning other high- quality informational texts of suitable difficulty. Some undoubtedly are doing so.