By EdReports ELA Team

2021/04/19

What do you remember reading in high school English? Most of us were required to read the “classics”—e.g., “Lord of the Flies,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Catcher in the Rye”—the books our brothers, sisters, and even parents read. But do these required texts align with modern college and career-ready standards and do they support the needs of each student?

In elementary school, books are often chosen to develop listening and reading comprehension skills. In high school, teachers may assume that students have already acquired the skills necessary to comprehend a complex text. Reading, then, becomes a tool used to develop other skills such as interpreting and analyzing what is read and citing examples and evidence from the text. Because of the change in purpose, the texts students engage with play a huge role in building high school students’ knowledge, critical thinking, and preparation for their futures.

As schools consider updating their high school English language arts (ELA) materials, taking a close look at the texts (also known as required reading) offered by a program, and how they align with the instructional content, should be central to any final decision. 

4 ways to assess high school text quality

So what are the crucial factors educators should consider when selecting texts at the high school level or when evaluating older programs still in use? High school ELA programs often take into account several components including literary merit, historical importance, academic currency, cultural currency, mentor texts, student engagement, and copyright. These are all valid and valuable considerations.

Materials should support students advancing toward independent reading at grade level and reflect the distribution of text types and genres required by the standards.

At EdReports, our approach to reviewing instructional materials is to evaluate text quality as part of rigorous college and career-ready standards. Materials should support students advancing toward independent reading at grade level and reflect the distribution of text types and genres required by the standards. 

As districts consider new high school ELA programs for adoption and evaluate the texts in current programs, we recommend starting your search with the following four questions: 

1. How is the text used?

Let’s look at “To Kill a Mockingbird”one of the most common required texts in high school ELA. “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been known to hold a lot of academic currency and literary merit. But, when viewed through the lens of cultural relevance in 2021, its value could conceivably shift. Do today’s students connect with the text in the same ways students did 40 years ago? In light of the current climate and real-world lessons being learned about racial equity, are characters such as Atticus Finch and Boo Radley framed in a way that makes sense for today? Given the changing views of the text over time, how the text is used takes on even more significance.

Do today’s students connect with the text in the same ways students did 40 years ago?

When assessing “classic” texts, adoption committees should consider: How is this text being used to ensure student engagement? How do the questions and supporting tasks influence classroom discussions and bring students into the text? This is not to say that “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or other texts from its era, don’t have a place in today’s classrooms. Rather, educators should not automatically assume that they do, and they should consider the treatment of the text as they approach it with their students.

2. Are the instructional materials "bloated"?

The EdReports review process looks for the degree to which materials align to college and career-ready standards. However, it’s important to note that some materials considered standards-aligned (particularly older ELA materials) have a tendency to simply add-on core instructional content and optional texts rather than truly evolve their materials to align with college and career-ready standards. 

At EdReports, we call this “program bloat” and have seen some sets of high school ELA materials come in at a whopping 10,000 pages. It’s not uncommon for schools to use these curricula for up to 20 years (hence why you might be reading the same copy of “The Grapes of Wrath” as your parents did). 

Even materials considered standards-aligned have a tendency to simply add-on core instructional content and optional texts rather than truly evolve their materials to align with college and career-ready standards.

This is a worrying trend in high school materials in regard to text choice and quality.

Because some publishers have opted to retrofit older materials with new standards-aligned content, accompanying questions don’t always relate to texts and there are almost always too many texts to choose from. 

This practice poses problems for many reasons. For teachers, it can be nearly impossible to identify what content is standards-aligned and what’s not. For students, this creates a risk that they may end up with gaps in their literacy development.

3. Is time appropriately allotted to study the text? 

According to high school ELA standards, instructional materials must include a balance of informational text options and literary text options to facilitate student access to a variety of genres. In primary grades, fulfilling the standards requires a 50-50 balance between informational and literary reading, but that standard shifts to 70-30 informational to literary in high school. Informational reading includes content-rich nonfiction in history, social studies, sciences, technical studies, and the arts.

When thinking about this breakdown of time on different topics, it’s important to consider the variety a program offers. High school ELA programs may be literature-focused, with the balance of informational content delivered to students in other classes such as science or social studies. In other courses, the balance of text types may be achieved within the ELA class alone. 

When teachers are required to navigate thousands of pages of content, they will likely struggle with implementing the program in a way that addresses their students' needs.

4. Is the sequence of texts and tasks appropriate? 

In our work at EdReports, we discovered that some sets of high school materials look different grade to grade, so the student experience is not coherent. Intentionally designed curricula build knowledge as students advance from one grade to the next. When materials are out of order, students may be challenged with comprehending the content, and the necessary related supports are not always available in the corresponding instructional materials.

For example, materials should include a progression of focused, shared research and writing projects to encourage students to develop and synthesize knowledge and understanding of a topic using texts and other source materials. Additionally, materials should provide a design, including accountability, for how students will regularly engage in a volume of independent reading either in or outside of class.

What you select and how you select matters

At EdReports, we believe that selecting instructional materials is a decision worthy of discussion and prioritization. Our reports are designed to empower educators with information because we know that no two districts are the same. Dive into our in-depth reviews to take a closer look at a program’s content and design to determine if it will work for your local context. 

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