What Does it Mean to Read at Third-Grade Level? An Analysis of Third-Grade Assessments and Instructional Programs across the United States

What Does it Mean to Read at Third-Grade Level? An Analysis of Third-Grade Assessments and Instructional Programs across the United States

First Author: Laura Tortorelli -- Michigan State University
Additional authors/chairs: 
Elfrieda Hiebert
Keywords: Text Complexity, Reading Assessment, Textbook, Reading acquisition, Vocabulary
Abstract / Summary: 

Purpose
Numerous policies and mandates related to third-grade reading achievement have been based on Chall, Jacobs and Baldwin's (1990) description of the fourth-grade slump. Unless third graders have attained benchmark levels of achievement, Chall et al. argued, they will perform poorly in subsequent grades. Changes in reading curriculum such as accelerated text levels and increased informational text in primary grades (National Governors' Association, 2010) have been substantial since Chall et al.'s observations. Yet neither theory nor research has described the parameters of third-grade proficiency. This study analyzes the features of the texts on third-grade summative assessments and core reading programs across the U.S.

Method
Third-grade released passages (n = 109) from 2016-2018 summative assessments in 26 states and two consortia (PARCC, Smarter Balanced) as well as the third-grade anthology texts from three core reading programs were analyzed using Lexile analyzer and Word Zone Profiler.

Results
The average scores for texts of third-grade assessments were 676 Lexile (SD = 149), 536 words long, and 6.5% rare words. Assessments contained less challenging texts than the core reading programs, in which texts intended for the end of third grade were 769 Lexile (SD = 142), 946 words long, and 8% rare words. There was significant variability across and within states and programs in Lexiles, length, and rare words.

Conclusions
Results suggest that assessments and curricula do not currently reflect a consensus about what makes a text appropriately challenging for students at the end of third grade. As a result, policies that require children to read “at grade level” may be inappropriate until such a consensus can be established and reified in instructional materials. Further work is needed to explore the vocabulary of third-grade texts and to establish performance criteria for third-grade reading that predict task performance in later grades.