The other day, I watched a documentary about the American school system. A term that came up again and again was "reading at grade level" and how many students could not do it. I don't know the documentary anymore, but here are two links which contain similar claims (search the linked pages for "grade level").

I can think of two possible meanings:

  1. It means that you can read at the same level as an average person in your grade. So for example, if you are in 7th grade, you can read as well as the average 7th-grader.
  2. It means that you can read at the same as someone in grade school, which is another term for elementary school (?)

It think it's the first option, but then the claims that someone can't read at grade level doesn't seem so bad anymore:

  • There will always be people who perform below average for their age, that just follows from the definition of average.
  • If someone is in 12th grade, but can only read as well as the average 11th-grader, they would be reading below grade level, but they could surely read enough to get by on a day-to-day basis.

So, can someone clear this up for me? What is meant when they say "a quarter of high school seniors read below grade level"?

Edit: The "possible duplicate" does not answer my question, because it does not give a definition of grade level, especially not with respect to reading.

  • 4
    Your number one choice is correct. But the interpretation is that the grade level is the minimum proficiency required to pass and graduate to the next grade level. The standards are quite low. My daughter was tested as reading at the 12 grade level while in 3rd grade.
    – Jim
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 18:16
  • Another possibility is that the term "below grade level" means "below the normal grade level of comprehension (or scholastic achievement) of a person of the individual's age." For example, if I am 12 years old and my cohort is in grade 6, but I am at a grade 4 level of mastery of scholastic content, then I am seriously below grade level, regardless of the actual grade I am in.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 18:19
  • 5
    In the United States, it means precisely nothing, except that Procedures Have Been Followed. It refers to an imaginary set of skills that should have been (but never are) mastered by students who successfully complete the Nth grade (form, year, class) in elementary schooling. American schools go: Kindergarten (optional), Grades 1-8 (elementary/jr HS), 9-12 (High School). The standards have nothing to do with what is taught or learned, only on what is tested. Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 18:21
  • 2
    I agree with Prof. Lawler. It's nothing more than a way for educators to cover their asses with quantifiable results. I have seen plenty of high school graduates who could read "at grade level" but for all practical purposes were functionally illiterate. YouTube comments are full of them.
    – Robusto
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 18:32

3 Answers 3


There are two main approaches to group testing -- criterion based testing and normative testing.

Criterion based testing establishes a series of standards that are meant to measure competence on a given task or in a given field. To be a good driver, you must successfully complete x number of tasks out of a total of x+y tasks. The number of people who successfully complete the overall test is independent of what any particular subject or group of subjects do. Out of ten test-takers, none may pass, ten may pass, or any number in between. Being at an acceptable level is based on the criteria set by the test designers.

Normative testing compares a test taker with other test takers and reports his or her standing based on the performance of the group. If an exam of 100 questions has half the test-takers score at or above 75 correct answers and half below, 75 correct answers is the 50th percentile (50%ile, also known as the median, a certain type of average). But on the next test, if half the test takers score above 40 correct answers and the rest below, on the second test, the 50%ile is 40 correct.

In many districts in the US, schools (and students) have traditionally been ranked based on their percentile scores that are derived from looking at a very large nationwide pool of test-takers.

How many of the schools in your district are above the 50?%ile in reading?

How many of the children in your class are above the 50?%ile in math?

The problem is that, unlike Lake Wobegone, not all of our children are above average. By definition. Unfortunately, in the past people often equated the median score, 50%ile, with grade level.

But if next year, if we work to improve our schools and succeed, and get many more of our students answering many more questions correctly, they have more overall knowledge and skill, but 50% of them are still below the median score! Or, if all teachers did a lousy job and kids learned much less, the median would drop and 50% of all the kids would still rank above the median score. This would result in a constantly shifting grade level. And that would mean that half our students (out of the whole pool) were always below grade level. This is the ultimate grading on the curve. And it often leads to complaints from the broader community that children are being passed through schools but do not seem to have mastered enough fundamental skills.

Criterion testing seeks to establish a base level of success -- if you get a score of x in a given set of challenges, you are considered acceptably proficient. That doesn't mean perfect, or expert. It means acceptable. Such standard setting is hard, but it is objective, at least as to measurement. And it is no guarantee that the criteria or the acceptable level of success was wisely chosen. But it doesn't change based on who is taking the test and how well they do in a given year.

Most schools now tend to use criterion based measures to describe grade level. There is much controversy, especially as changes in testing lead to reports of achievement that seems to slip, but is often just reporting something different.

  • Reminds me of the old quip: "Remember, fully 50% of the doctors out there graduated in the bottom half of their class!"
    – Jim
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 20:24

You're missing a third option:

  1. It means that you can read as well as some hypothetical person imagined by a committee. That may be based on the average reading ability of some prior-year cohort of students, or the minimal reading ability needed to understand typical written material (either on a typical job, or in college; in either case scaled down to the grade in question), or plucked out of thin air.

Note the comment in one of the articles you linked,

"Grade level is a political construct,"


You're correct that it's the first option. In the US, there's an obsession with testing primary and secondary school students, who are assigned the drudgery of advancing through grades K (kindergarten, essentially grade zero) through 12 (the last year before university). This obsession has spawned an industry of test-making, test-giving, and test-grading (including the statistical analysis of test scores). Typically students in each grade receive scores in reading and mathematics, and their scores fall into ranges that are categorized as unacceptable, acceptable, and more than acceptable. For reading tests, these categories correspond to reading below grade level, at grade level, and above grade level, respectively. If you'd like to see how the state of Florida does it, click here and look at the tables labeled "Achievement Levels."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.