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11 Tiers of Frustration: What the SRA Reading Levels REALLY Meant

If you grew up in the 1970s or 1980s and went to public school in the United States, you almost certainly have memories of the SRA Reading Laboratory … the dreaded SRA reading levels. Here’s what SRA stands for in reading (Science Research Associates).

Good memories? Maybe, if you’re Gold or Aqua or Blue.

We’ll get to that in a minute, but first a review of what SRA was all about …

The SRA (Science Research Associates) Lab consisted of a big cardboard box that stood at the back of your classroom on a table. The box contained approximately 31,000 fold “cards,” each of which offered up a story plus some questions about said story.

The cards were divided into folders of various colors, beginning with Rose and climbing all the way up through Blue. These hues corresponded to (unspecified) reading levels.

If you got through all the stories in one level, and passed the question-tests along the way, you moved up to the next color level.

Where you started depended on your past work and your teacher’s heuristic assessment of your abilities. If he/she had it out for you, well, you were going to start at the very bottom.

So what did those colors mean in terms of actual SRA reading levels?

Probably everyone who ever knew for sure is long dead.


But we can make some educated (if illiterate) guesses …

SRA Reading Levels – True Meanings

Rose: You’re a Dumb, Delicate Flower

This was the “See Dick Run” neighborhood of the SRA box, and if you tested here or got placed here by your teacher, you were in for a long year.

Your only hope was to catapult yourself into the Red and Orange as quickly as you could, but it was no easy task — after all, you’d been labeled as a poor reader.

Or dolt. Or something.

“See Dick run. See Dick try to read. See Dick fail to read because teacher said he can’t read. Don’t be a Dick.”

Red: You’re in Danger of Dropping Out of Third Grade

If you were slotted into the Red folder, you had about a 50-50 chance of surviving to the next grade.

Teach knew you sucked at reading, figured you sucked at everything else, but for some reason didn’t see you as a Pink Project.

You were on your own, and if you couldn’t or wouldn’t get it in gear, well, there was bound to be a thriving child labor market for you somewhere in the world.

Orange: Caution — Mediocre Readers Ahead

Orange is all about caution, and that goes double for SRA — when a student got slapped with this mental traffic cone, both he and his teacher had better beware.

Linger too long in Orange, and you might get demoted to Red. And then it was a crapshoot (see above).

Work hard, though, and you just might push your way into the muddy middle of readers.

Brown: The Muddy Middle

That mediocrity would be Brown, of course. I mean, even the worst watercolor artist in your elementary school could tell you what you got when you mixed all the paints together: mud.

In SRA Land, Brown was where the various types of students co-mingled.

The overachievers from the lower reaches of the box found common ground with the slackers from the “promising” students who fell on hard times.

And in that middle ground, they found the mass of average students who began SRA life at Brown.

Gold: All That’s Gold Does Not Glitter

Once you read and tested your way through all the Brown stories, you got promoted straight into (solid) Gold (baby)!

But hold off on that morning wood for a minute, Skippy, because SRA Gold was really just SRA Brown with a bit of glittery shoe polish applied.

Sure, the typeface got a little smaller, and you might pick up a few syllables, but you were nowhere near ready to discern between simile and metaphor.

Or between apathy and ignorance.

And, truly, you didn’t care.

Lime: A Bitter Baseline

When you made it to Lime you could start breathing a bit easier.

You had pulled yourself out of the muck below you, and you effectively met the minimum standards that your teacher had for you.

If you got through Lime, or close to it, you probably went as far as your abilities will allow. Just ask teach.

Still, if you could push just a bit harder, you might have had the makings of a productive member of society.

Green: Good to Go

By the time you were Green, it was clear that you had some things on the ball.

You likely understood the difference between always and never, for instance.

You might have been good-looking, and some good-looking kids actually started here in Green.

On the basis of … well, Teacher’s Choice, you might say.

Heck, if you made it to Green, it might even be that your mother loved you.

Either way, you had the makings of a solid citizen.

Olive: Making Peace with Your Teacher

As you slid into the nether regions of the SRA Green Scale, you were entering rarefied air.

Depending on who your teacher was and when they grew up and how smart they are, you may have been treading dangerously close to their intellectual limit.

So, you know, tread lightly.


Aqua: You Can Probably Read Underwater

Kids who made it to Aqua were like another species.

I mean, they read more in a semester, or a month, or a week, than I had my whole life.

And they could hardly conceal their contempt for the lesser mortals languishing in Brown or Lime or Olive.

I know they could read underwater.

I suspect they could breathe underwater, too.

Oh, and they were almost always girls.

Aqua Boys? Cheaters and liars.

Silver: Most People Can’t Read this Well Until They’re Old

When you were Silver, you’re old and wise, just like when you have Silver hair.

You had moved beyond the pettiness of competition and were reading for the joy of it, for the pure edification.

I have no way to prove this because I’m pretty sure the Silver SRA cards were written in upside-down Greek, but I think most of the Silver stories were actually War and Peace excerpts.

The rest were instruction manuals on how to care for your pet human, beamed down by the Stuknaths.

Blue: You Have the Makings of a Teacher

Blue was the pinnacle of the SRA universe.

Why Blue?

Hell, why are you asking me? I’m still way down there trying to bubble-sort my way out of Brown.

But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s because the sky is Blue, and that was the limit for students who made it all the way to SRA Blue.

Wanna be an astronaut? A brain surgeon? President?

It was all in front of you once you punched your Blue card, my friend.

And if you finished Blue?

The only air rarefied enough for you was education — you were virtually destined to become a teacher.

And then you could perpetuate the anxieties of SRA reading levels among your own students.

(Like What the SRA Reading Levels REALLY Meant? Then you might like our article on What Does SRA Stand For, click here.)

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29 thoughts on “11 Tiers of Frustration: What the SRA Reading Levels REALLY Meant

  1. I would completely disagree. This system is why I LOVE to read to this day. When I started my oldest stared school in 1995, I actually asked their teacher about this system. They were unfamiliar. I searched online (once online was an option) for this system but couldn’t find anything. I think that this is a great system. Allows students to learn at their own pace.

  2. I’m with you Sonny. I already loved to read and was ahead of my peers anyway but I deeply resented being forced to read “stories” which had zero interest for me. Nothing could have turned me off reading… but SRA came close.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. I remember being stuck in Olive, the drabbiest (is that a word?) of colors. I don’t remember why I couldn’t move on to the next exciting color. It made me feel stupid. I thought a lot of the stories were boring too. It seems like part of our day required SRA, and many times there wasn’t enough time to do anything but a quick read.
      I don’t think about those years very often. Isn’t it funny how a picture can trigger all kinds of memories?

      1. Sure is. Smells do it, too. Every so often, I’ll get a whiff of something that reminds me of mimeograph fluid, and I’m spiraling through grade school again!

  3. I read way above grade level from the beginning of first grade, but I was easily distracted, and seriously HATED those awful SRA stories and had a very difficult time forcing myself to concentrate on them long enough to be able to answer any questions. I was beyond bored, and put absolutely no effort into doing well. I’m sure this frustrated my teachers nearly as much as it frustrated me to be forced to read those infernal cards! Worst education tool ever, in my humble opinion.

    1. If you folded them together and stacked them just right, they made pretty good barracks for army men. But otherwise … yeah, mostly useless.

  4. I think you missed black. Black was the last level. I know because ,well, you are all idiots, that’s how I know.

    1. Well, I sure don’t remember a black level, but I’ll cop to being an idiot. So there’s that.

  5. Although I agree this wasn’t the best system, I’ve seen the curriculum guides. Teachers didn’t decide your level randomly. Students were given placement tests as well. I seriously doubt any teacher decided they didn’t like a student and started them out at a low level.

  6. Perhaps the use of colors (visible to everyone) was not the best idea.
    However, having some method of measuring progress, and being challenged to raise one’s reading level, is not a bad (or trauma-producing) idea.
    I believe there are still “folders”, but identified as comfortable grade level reading selections. If a Middle School student is only “comfortably” reading 3-4 grade level materials, that should give the student incentive to challenge him(her)self to work on areas needing more practice (vocabulary, comprehension, etc.)
    It need not be BROADCAST to the rest of the class!

  7. I liked them. I read them all. I enjoyed the artwork too. I’m looking them up because I want find a way to go through them again.

    1. First became aware of SRA in 4th or 5th grade possibly 1958. I was marked as a slow learner by teachers. Good enough to move ahead but barely. Truth I was bored . By the time I graduated grammar school I was reading at 12 grade levels. Finally something other than Dick and Jane.

  8. I remember racing with other classmates to see who could get further ahead. We loved it.
    Me and around eight others were always neck and neck to the finish.

    I miss programs like this. Going to try and find one now for my children.

    1. You and your ilk bestowed upon me great angst … but I wish you luck in your quest to recover Pandora’s box. You should be able to find it on eBay in some form or another.

  9. These were annoying because they made us finsih all the red before we proceeded. Consquequently, it was easy, annoying, and didn’t get far because even though they skipped Rose, they didn’t let us test out of the others.

  10. OMG. I just found this thread. We had SRA time in school from in 1983 to 1988. One of those reasons why a 64-box Crayola with built-in sharpener was VITAL those days. LOL. I so loved this, the SRA system really taught us a lot. And now, after changing continents, I find myself teaching English here in Rome, Italy for my side hustle. And I still use the SRA method. I ordered the 1982 and 1987 editions through Ebay. I still feel the excitement when I open the SRA boxes.

    1. Awesome! I’m sure I’d still feel nervous nausea were I to pop open a box. lol

      Thanks for chiming in!

    2. I had SRA in the early 60’s in grade school. Loved it! This article made me laugh until I cried.

  11. I hated SRA with a fiery passion. I read way above grade level and found every level excrutiatingly banal. I had to wait for the slower readers to do their work so I could finish the early levels – the teacher wouldn’t let me take multiple cards at a time. Then I’d burn through the upper levels and be left with nothing to do because we weren’t allowed to do personal reading.

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