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.

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 …

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.

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