Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools
(The following is an exerpt from the official Common Core State Standards)
K–12 Schooling: Declining Complexity of Texts
and a Lack of Reading of Complex Texts Independently
Despite steady or growing reading demands from various sources, K–12 reading texts have actually trended downward
in difficulty in the last half century. Jeanne Chall and her colleagues (Chall, Conard, & Harris, 1977) found a thirteen year
decrease from 1963 to 1975 in the difficulty of grade 1, grade 6, and (especially) grade 11 texts. Extending the
period to 1991, Hayes, Wolfer, and Wolfe (1996) found precipitous declines (relative to the period from 1946 to 1962) in
average sentence length and vocabulary level in reading textbooks for a variety of grades. Hayes also found that while
science books were more difficult to read than literature books, only books for Advanced Placement (AP) classes had
vocabulary levels equivalent to those of even newspapers of the time (Hayes & Ward, 1992). Carrying the research
closer to the present day, Gary L. Williamson (2006) found a 350L (Lexile) gap between the difficulty of end-of-high
school and college texts—a gap equivalent to 1.5 standard deviations and more than the Lexile difference between
grade 4 and grade 8 texts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Although legitimate questions
can be raised about the tools used to measure text complexity (e.g., Mesmer, 2008), what is relevant in these numbers
is the general, steady decline—over time, across grades, and substantiated by several sources—in the difficulty and
likely also the sophistication of content of the texts students have been asked to read in school since 1962.
So, what else happened in 1962?
In two landmark decisions, Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), the US Supreme Court established what is now the current prohibition on state-sponsored prayer in schools. While the Engel decision held that the promulgation of an official state-school prayer stood in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (thus overruling the New York Courts’ decisions), Abington held that Bible readings and other (state) school-sponsored religious activities were prohibited.