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Claims about Text Complexity within the Common Core State Standards: Examining the Evidence

Posted by Elfrieda H. Hiebert on 3 March 2014

Standard 10 of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) evaluates students’ ability to read increasingly more complex texts across the grades to ensure proficiency with texts of college and careers by high school graduation. The content of Standard 10 is based on several claims that need to be unpacked to determine the strength of research evidence for this standard. An overview of three claims and their evidence follow. A claim that is not examined pertains to the presentation of correlations of metrics such as Lexiles and ATOS and levels of text as “new research on text difficulty” (CCSS, Supplement to Appendix A). Research to refute the claim that the findings are new and/or appropriate as a basis for state policy is long-standing and substantial (e.g., Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985; Klare, 1984).

There is a need for more challenging text because “K-12 reading texts have actually trended downward in difficulty in the last half century” (CCSS Appendix A, p. 8).

A re-examination of the two studies cited as evidence for this claim refutes this conclusion for the primary-grades (Hiebert & Mesmer, 2013), showing that third-grade texts were hardest in the latest period studied (1980s). Further, studies not included by CCSS writers show that first-grade texts have gotten substantially harder over the past 50 years (e.g., Foorman, Francis, Davidson, Harm, & Griffin, 2004).

Growth-curve analyses based on an historical dataset from a single cohort in a single state can be used to establish an accelerated staircase of text complexity for all students (Williamson, 2006).

Currently, there is no evidence that the reading proficiencies of all students can be accelerated at the rate outlined in the CCSS (CCSS Appendix A-Supplement, 2012). In the historical database, only students at the top of the top quartile read at the “high end of the range”(Williamson, 2012)—the level at which all students are to be reading in the final year of a grade band, if they are to be proficient in the standard.

Giving students challenging texts will result in improved reading levels.

No references are given for this assumption but several writers subsequently have referred to studies by Morgan, Wilcox, and Eldredge (2000), O’Connor, Swanson, and Geraghty (2010), and Stahl and Heubach (2005) as evidence that instruction with challenging texts produces higher reading performances. A reanalysis of these studies indicates that struggling readers did not attain adequate levels of proficiency with challenging texts (Mesmer & Hiebert, 2013). At the same time, there is no evidence for the validity of Betts’s (1946) criteria for independent, instructional, and frustrational levels (Halladay, 2012). Appropriate reader-text matches as a function of student proficiency, background knowledge, and instructional context is an area where research is urgently needed.


Anderson, R.C., Hiebert, E.H., Scott, J.A., & Wilkinson, I.A.G. (1985). Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading. Champaign, IL: The Center for the Study of Reading, National Institute of Education, National Academy of Education. Also available at: http://www.textproject.org/library/books/becoming-a-nation-of-readers/

Betts, E. A. (1946). Foundations of reading instruction. New York, NY: American Book Company.

Foorman, B.R., Francis, D.J., Davidson, K.C., Harm, M.W., & Griffin, J. (2004). Variability in text features in six Grade 1 basal reading programs. Scientific Studies of Reading, 8(2), 167-197.

Halladay, J.L. (2012). Revisiting key assumptions of the reading level framework. The Reading Teacher, 66(1), 53-62.

Hiebert, E. H., & Mesmer, H. A. (2013). Upping the ante of text complexity in the Common Core State Standards: Examining its potential impact on young readers. Educational Researcher, 42(1), 44-51.

Klare, G.R. (1984). Readability. In P.D. Pearson, R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, & P. Mosenthal (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research (pp. 681-744). New York, NY: Longman.

Mesmer, H.A.E., & Hiebert, E.H. (2013). How far can third graders be “stretched”? Exploring the influence of text difficulty and length. Santa Cruz, CA: TextProject.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., & Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113-119.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010a). Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010b). Common Core State Standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects, Appendix A. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2012). Supplemental information for Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy: New research on text complexity. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from Common Core State Standards Initiative website: http://www.corestandards.org/resources

O’Connor, R. E., Swanson, H. L., & Geraghty, C. (2010). Improvement in reading rate under independent and difficult text levels: Influences on word and comprehension skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(1), 1–19. doi: 10.1037/a0017488.

Stahl, S., & Heubach, K. (2005). Fluency-oriented reading instruction. Journal of Literacy Research, 37, 25–60.

Williamson, G.L. (February 3, 2012). Understanding cognitive growth in an era of high stakes assessment. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Research Association, LaJolla, CA.

Williamson, G.L. (2006). Aligning the journey with a destination: A model for K-16 reading standards (White paper). Durham, NC: MetaMetrics, Inc. Retrieved from https://www.lexile.com/research/48/