Difficulty of US High School Reading in Decline

In Children's by Dennis Abrams

High School Reading Snapshot

By Dennis Abrams

Renaissance Learning has released its fifth edition of the What Kids are Reading report (PDF).

Among the topics covered in the free report, it compared high school reading across the last century.

It should come as no surprise that the report revealed “a decline over time in the complexity of required texts for high school students.”

A sample of a typical high school reading list for the years 1907-2012:


  • Julius Caesar
  • Macbeth
  • Silas Marner


  • The Rivals: A Comedy
  • Ivanhoe
  • Sohrab and Rustum


  • Macbeth
  • Silas Marner
  • Julius Caesar


  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Crucible
  • Night

At NPR, Eric Stickney, the educational research director for Renaissance Learning, said that as part of their study, “Last year, we surveyed more than 8.6 million students from across the country who read a total of 283 million books.”

He went further, saying that after the late part of middle school, students generally don’t continue to add to the level of difficulty in the books that they read.

Last year, for example, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were below grade level. And even more disturbing, the most popular books read last year in high school — the three books in The Hunger Games series — were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.

Indeed, as Stickney noted, “The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read has declined by about three grade levels over the last 100 years. A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level.”

Still the report point’s out “that just because the books students are being assigned to read are less complex than in prior years, this does not necessarily mean that they cannot read or comprehend books at higher levels, nor can we assume that assigning more complex texts would necessarily lead to improvements in achievement.”

Most-Read Titles Overall for schools 2012-2012

  • Grades 1–2: Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
  • Grades 3–6: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney
  • Grades 7–12: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Most-Read Award Winners

  • Caldecott Medal Winner: Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathman (1996)
  • Newbery Medal Winner: The Giver by Lois Lowry (1994)

Read the entire report here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.