“Lexiles,” used to measure a text’s complexity, are “transforming the way American schools teach reading,” concludes Blaine Greteman in New Republic. And not for the better.
Here’s a pop quiz: according to the measurements used in the new Common Core Standards, which of these books would be complex enough for a ninth grader?
a. Huckleberry Finn
b. To Kill a Mockingbird
c. Jane Eyre
d. Sports Illustrated for Kids’ Awesome Athletes!
The only correct answer is “d,” since all the others have a “Lexile” score so low that they are deemed most appropriate for fourth, fifth, or sixth graders. This idea might seem ridiculous, but it’s based on a metric that is transforming the way American schools teach reading.
Lexiles were developed in the 1980s by the MetaMetrics corporation, writes Greteman, an English professor. A proprietary algorithm analyzes sentence length and vocabulary to assign a “Lexile” score from 0 to 1,600.
Common Core State Standards use Lexiles to “determine what books are appropriate for students in each grade level,” writes Greteman. More than 200 publishers “now submit their books for measurement, and various apps and websites match students precisely to books on their personal Lexile level.”
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five scores 870, a fourth-grade read, he writes. Mr. Popper’s Penguins (910) is deemed more complex.
Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Stories are rated at the sixth-grade level. Raymond Carver’s Cathedral ”scores a puny 590, about the same as Curious George Gets a Medal.”
To be fair, both the creators of the Common Core and MetaMetrix admit these standards can’t stand as the final measure of complexity. As the Common Core Standards Initiative officially puts it, “until widely available quantitative tools can better account for factors recognized as making such texts challenging, including multiple levels of meaning and mature themes, preference should likely be given to qualitative measures of text complexity when evaluating narrative fiction intended for students in grade 6 and above.” But even here, the final goal is a more complex algorithm; qualitative measurement fills in as a flawed stopgap.
The ability to read complex texts strongly predicts college success, according to Common Core’s Appendix A. It calls for using qualitative and quantitative measures of a text’s complexity, along with “reader and task considerations.” However, if every text comes with a Lexile score, it will be hard for teachers to ignore.