You might be surprised. From NPR:
“Last year, we had more than 8.6 million students from across the country who read a total of 283 million books,” says Eric Stickney, the educational research director for Renaissance Learning. Students participate in the Accelerated Reader program through their schools. When they read a book, they take a brief comprehension quiz, and the book is then recorded in the system. The books are assigned a grade level based on vocabulary and sentence complexity.
And Stickney says that after the late part of middle school, students generally don’t continue to increase the difficulty levels of the books they read.
Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level. The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.
Last year, for the first time, Renaissance did a separate study to find out what books were being assigned to high school students. “The complexity of texts students are being assigned to read,” Stickney says, “has declined by about three grade levels over the past 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.”
Most of the assigned books are novels, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men or Animal Farm. Students even read recent works like The Help and The Notebook. But in 1989, high school students were being assigned works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte and Edith Wharton.
Now, with the exception of Shakespeare, most classics have dropped off the list.
Back at Woodrow Wilson High School, at a 10th-grade English class — regular, not honors — students say they don’t read much outside of school. But Tyler Jefferson and Adriel Miller are eager to talk. Adriel likes books about sports; Tyler likes history. Both say their teachers have assigned books they would not have chosen on their own. “I read The Odyssey, Tyler says. “I read Romeo and Juliet. I didn’t read Hamlet. Asked what he thought of the books, Tyler acknowledges some challenges. “It was very different, because how the language was back then, the dialogue that they had.
Adriel agrees that books like that are tougher to read. “That’s why we have great teachers that actually make us understand,” he says. “It’s a harder challenge of our brain, you know; it’s a challenge.”