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Literature in Lexile

Common Core standards undermine end goals of increased literacy

By Michael Thorbjørn Feehly

You’ve probably heard about lexiles already—you know—that system of ranking books by difficulty using quantitative analysis of word frequency and sentence length? The proprietary textual-complexity measurement system garnered a great deal of press in the past few weeks. Lots of bad press, actually. It’s something that deserves further scrutiny and attention.

The idea of lexiles is quite simple: As we have units of measure for temperature, length, weight, periods of time, and so on, why not quantify the complexity, the reading difficulty of a text? I can appreciate the possible advantages of having a solid, instant, digit-sized impression of a book. Teachers in primary and secondary schools could use lexiles to choose which books to assign to which students—knowing in advance if students would be bored, would meet with a challenge, or would struggle through without comprehension.

However, practice rarely mirrors theory; belief in the validity of such a scale is sure to be shaken when confronted with its results. As reported by Blaine Greteman in The New Republic, classic novels like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird receive perplexingly low lexile scores (680, 870); and books like The Hunger Games (810) or Mr. Popper’s Penguins (910), which laymen might consider simpler novels, somehow merited higher scores. No human reader tasked with ranking these books by qualitative or quantitative methods would return the same results. So I hope, at least.

If education reform is important to you, then the lexile scale should make you feel uneasy. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, sponsored by the National Governors Association, already incorporates lexile scores into its new English Language Arts curriculum; the Common Core itself has been adopted by 45 states out of 50. The goal of the initiative is to increase curricular rigor, and an easy way to do this is to quantify textual difficulty and assign tougher books to young students. But the adoption of lexiles breeds contradictions. Consider: The new lexile range for grade 10 is 1080-1305 lexiles, but the example text for grades 9-10 is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—680 lexiles only! Again, any reasonably well-read person could tell you what lexiles can’t: The difficulty of a text is more than the sum of its syntax.

To the credit of the CCSS for English, “quantitative dimensions of text complexity” are only one third of the CCSS methodology of text evaluation—the other two are qualitative dimensions of text complexity and consideration of readers and tasks. Further, CCSS methodology presents lexiles as one of many possible quantitative schemes—a competitor to the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, the Dale-Chall readability formula, and the ATOS formula.

Yet cursory or deep readings of the CCSS literature both confirm the initiative’s preference for the lexile scale: It receives the most mentions, and graphs and charts accompanying the recommendations use lexile score ranges instead of Flesch-Kincaid or the Coh-Metrix system, the only identified non-profit readability evaluation service mentioned by CCSS. That the lexile scale is the product of a private educational company known as MetaMetrics should not be problematic per se.

Given recent protest against the effectiveness of for-profit charter school operators, I think it would be reasonably cautious to step back and question if we as taxpayers should turn over any part of our curricular standards to an entity that’s unaccountable to the public.

Could there be a better investment? I think so. Primary and secondary school libraries could fulfill the curatorial and diagnostic roles performed by lexiles. Most of what’s said about school libraries now revolves around the digital. Emphasis on computer literacy seemingly eclipses the library’s traditional role of promoting literacy, love of reading, and connecting readers to new books they might enjoy and might profit from. I think the mission of the CCSS for English Language Arts could benefit by libraries staffed by librarians and full of books.

Statistics collected by the U.S. Department of Education indicate that in 2008, 91 percent of public schools had a library or media center and of those schools only 62 percent of libraries were staffed by a fulltime librarian; 27 percent of libraries had neither fulltime nor part-time staff. Compare this with the data from 2000, when 86 percent of public school libraries employed a fulltime librarian. This decline rings true to me: My high school had a librarian my freshman year but by my senior year the position was unfilled and the space defunct.

Librarians could work one-on-one with students, develop a reading plan for them based on interests and skill level, track their progress, and much more. English teachers could partner with librarians to help students who are falling behind or gifted students who aren’t stimulated by the grade-level curriculum, freeing up more class time for instruction in grammar and writing.

What’s important is to inspire a lifelong love of reading, and especially reading drama, poetry, and fiction. Currently, the CCSS heavily favors the reading of non-fiction and technical texts. I think it should not ignore literature, though; studies show that reading literary fiction can increase students’ empathy—a quality some people value, even if they are unable to practice it.

What you can’t accomplish with numbers, you might achieve with a human being who cares about books and the students who read them, and a viable space in which books are available and valued.

Michael Thorbjørn Feehly ’14 is a history and Scandinavian studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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