Common Core Standards Initiative aims for more nonfiction reading, less remedial college courses

Grace Murray

A recent change in the Common Core State Standards Initiative mandates an increased focus on nonfiction literary works in high school curriculums to lessen enrollment in remedial English classes in college.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, sponsored the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, is an educational strategy focused on a standards-based reform. Ohio adopted the initiative in June 2010 and plans for full implementation to begin in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the Ohio Department of Education website.

The recent reform in the standards calls for 70 percent of high school curriculum to be comprised of nonfiction materials.

Mark Bauerlein, English professor at Emory University and a contributor to the formulation of the Common Core, said this change results from a lack of preparedness among high school graduates.

“When [Common Core creators] look at college success,” Bauerlein said, “we find that a lot of students get to college, and they can’t handle college-level readings. The reading assignments are just too much for them.”

During the Fall 2012 semester, 628 Kent campus students and 1,716 regional campus students were enrolled in remedial English and reading courses, and in the Spring 2013 semester, 105 Kent campus students and 731 regional campus students are enrolled in remedial language arts classes.

“In college, the majority of what you are reading is nonfiction,” said Denise Morgan, director of the Reading and Writing Development Center. “You are reading your psychology textbook or your biology textbook, not a lot of fiction. So in order to prepare kids, we need to make sure they are reading more nonfiction.”

However, Morgan said simply increasing the amount of nonfiction reading does not fix the problem entirely.

“I can just say, ‘Read more,’ but that doesn’t make you a better reader,” Morgan said. “But if I say, ‘Read more, and let me show you how to read’ — that will make you a better reader.”

Similarly, Jill Folk, cognitive psychologist and Kent State professor, said reading comprehension is part of literacy, but literacy requires a deeper understanding and interpretation of texts.

“[The effectiveness of the Common Core] is going to depend on how it’s implemented and what students are required to do with these texts,” Folk said. “Do they have practice drawing inferences from these texts? Do they have practice searching the text efficiently? All of those things are subskills of literacy.”

William Kist, associate professor in the department of Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies, said he believes “the core is encouraging teachers to get kids to really read deeply for meaning, and to be able to answer text-dependent questions.”

Kist also said he thinks the Common Core Initiative is encouraging teachers to use primary source documents, as opposed to simply reading from the textbook, though specifics are not outlined in the mandate.

The Common Core Initiative listed a number of exemplary readings for high schools to introduce to their curricula, including works such as “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine and “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” by Malcolm Gladwell, according to the Common Core Standards website.

High schools are not required to implement these texts.

“[Officials] use the word mandate, but they don’t specify, ” Bauerlein said. “If they had, they would have gotten tremendous opposition, so I think they probably went as far as they could in mandating content.”

Even though specific nonfiction texts are not required, students will be tested on their school district’s adherence to the Common Core.

“The motivating factor is the new generation of assessments that have to be in place by the 2014-2015 school year,” Kist said. “Those assessments, which are going to be written by [the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers Consortium], are completely tied to the core.”

The assessments will test not only on English, but also on science, social studies and mathematics, according to the ODE website.

“The overall assessment system design will include a mix of constructed response items, performance-based tasks, and computer-enhance, computer-scored items,” according to the PARCC website. “The PARCC assessments will be administered via computer, and a combination of automated scoring and human scoring will be employed.”

Bauerlein is not sure whether these assessments will indicate a higher level of proficiency.

“I think it depends on how committed,” he said, “at the state level, the governors, the secretary of state in Ohio and other officials are in holding people to aligning with the Common Core.”

Grace Murray is the student affairs reporter for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact Grace Murray at [email protected].