Credit: Sarah Kreitzer / MetaMetrics

Years ago, I coached my 8-year-old son’s basketball team. A few games into the season, a parent berated me for not winning every game. I shared that I had two primary goals (and neither was piling up wins): First, at the season’s end, each player should be better than when they started. Second, each player should enjoy basketball enough to want to play again.

Reading development is similar. Instead of focusing on a child being the first student to learn to read, or reading at the highest grade level, parents and teachers should be asking, “Is their reading ability growing over the year?” and “Are their desire to read and love of reading growing?”

There is tremendous range in the reading ability of students. Some students enter a grade already reading on grade level. But as parents and teachers, are we happy if they do not grow during the year? Obviously not. And, more importantly, does the concept of reading “on grade level” create a sustained love of reading throughout a student’s education and beyond?

The good news is that for years we, as educators, have done a great job of helping parents understand the milestone of reading “on grade level” by third grade. The bad news is the concept of “reading on grade level” is not as straightforward as it might initially appear. It can be confusing when what states, districts or schools each call “on grade level” dramatically differs. How can a parent know if their child is reading on grade level and what that means if they are? Sadly, it depends.

One can think about being “on grade level” from one of two perspectives, “normative” or “standards-based.”

normative approach measures how well a child reads compared with classmates in the same grade. It is similar to height norm reports children receive at an annual doctor’s appointment. Just as pediatricians compare a child’s height to age cohort averages, we can compare how well they read to other children their age. A child could be measured to be at the 75th percentile rank in reading or height, meaning that they read better or are taller than 75% of their peers. However, even from a normative perspective, we make judgments as to where to draw this line.

The second perspective is a standards- or proficiency-based determination of “on grade level” reading. This focuses on whether they have achieved a defined level of mastery of specific content defined in state or national standards. A second grader may have reached the 75th percentile on height norms and yet still not be tall enough to meet the height requirement for Disneyland’s Thunder Mountain roller coaster; so too they can perform at the 75th percentile in reading compared to their peers but still not meet state or national standards.

While these perspectives are both valid, the more important questions most parents should ask are “Is my child growing as a reader?” and “Is my child developing a love of reading?”

This year, students who took the end-of-year Smarter Balanced test as part of California’s assessment system will receive their Lexile measure in the score reports sent to families. The Lexile Framework for Reading places student reading ability and the complexity of books and instructional materials on the same scale, enabling teachers and parents to match children with materials suited to their current skill level. Families will be able to view their child’s performance on tests from a normative perspective (where does my child’s performance on reading compare to others?) and from the reading standards for each grade level of the curriculum (the Disneyland ride height example). Parents and educators can also use this measure to help children find engaging reading materials that match their interests and abilities, which can help build a love of reading.

The disruptions from the past year present opportunities for many areas of education to evolve. We must optimize every window of time to promote reading outside the school day and year — including but not limited to summer reading programs. Indeed, research finds that efforts that encourage children to read over the summer — through out-of-school and home-based programs — can prevent summer learning loss and improve reading skills.

Looking back at my tenure coaching basketball, yes, perhaps I could have been the winningest basketball coach 8-year-olds in the history of our local YMCA — but at what cost? Let’s work together to ensure that every child has the opportunity to grow in their reading skills and enjoy learning along the way.


Malbert Smith, Ph.D., is the CEO, president, and co-founder of MetaMetrics, the developer of the Lexile Framework for Reading. He is also a research professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and serves on the UNC School of Education Foundation Board.

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