The Common Core Standards do not require reading complete long works of literature. Even by the time we arrive at the 11th and 12th grade set of standards for reading literature, the standards only refer to “stories, dramas, and poems.”
There are, throughout the standards, references to Shakespeare and “foundational works” or literature. But the standards do not suggest that students should, at some point in their academic career, read an entire book. Appendix A provides highly technical explanations of how to consider text complexity and quality, but somehow avoids discussing the value of reading an entire novel. Appendix B provides “exemplars,” of reading selections, but the exemplars from novels are all short passages.
This interest in passages and excerpts dovetails nicely with the standardized testing now associated with the Common Core Standards (or whatever name your state has given to them). The PARCC, the SBA, and other big standardized tests cannot, by their nature, ask students to read and reflect on entire complex works of literature. Instead, we find short poems, short articles, and passages excerpted from longer works.
Both the standards and the tests are focused on “skills,” with the idea that the business of reading a play or a story or any piece of text is not for the value of that text, but for the reading skills that one acquires and practices in the reading. The standards suggest that students should have some knowledge about some texts, but that’s not the focus (and it won’t be on the test).
All of this has had an effect on how teachers teach literature. One of the more subtle effects of test-centered teaching is the rise of the excerpt. We don’t need to read all of Hamlet or Grapes of Wrath or Huckleberry Finn; we just need to read some select excerpts from them. Just tear a couple of pages out of the text and throw the rest of the book away. There are, in fact, businesses like the website CommonLit, a website that offers an entire library of short stories, poems, and excerpts from novels, along with lessons, testing materials that tie to plenty of pretty data charts and analytics. If you have any doubts about what motivates teachers to use a service like this (and many, many do), consider one satisfied customer’s statement about the need that CommonLit met:
We’ve been asked to combine short fiction and nonfiction texts with our curriculum and align them to questions that match our state test for years.
This is test prep. And one thing that test prep doesn’t need is long chunks of reading. Test passages will tend to be about one page long, and so the year’s work in reading becomes focused on reacting to short passages (primarily through responding to multiple choice questions). Excerpts are consumed cut free from their context in the larger work, and they are read and consumed quickly; there can be no time to read the whole work, reflect on it, even discuss it with other interested readers. Read the few paragraphs, answer the questions, move on to the next passage.
It is increasingly possible for students to graduate from high school without ever having read an entire novel, an entire play. Their knowledge of the body of literature is Cliff’s Notes deep, and they may never develop the mental muscles to work their way through a long, meaty piece of literature. Their experience of literature has been fractured and shrunk into pieces small enough to fit on a screen. Their experience of what “reading” is has been shrunk as well, leaving them with the idea that reading is about ploughing through a short, disjointed piece of a piece of writing in order to correctly guess the answers about it that someone else believes are correct (based on the assumption that there is only one correct reading of each passage).
After years and years of this, there is no evidence that any of this creates better readers. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that it does add to the number of students who learn to hate reading in school. Have there always been teachers who made literature into a painful chore? Sure. But the modern education reforms have only made the problems worse.
There are plenty of schools that resist this trend and that continue to teach entire works of literature in a deep and reflective way. Not all teachers are given that choice by their administrators. The broader solution to this issue (as it is the solution to many current issues in education) is to do away with test-driven schooling. Make the tests no-stakes tests, or simply do away with them, and stop using them to drive curricular changes that are poor educational practices.
More Info: forbes.com