Why I Try to Ignore Lexile Reading Levels

As you may have guessed from my post about standardized testing, I am wary of tests or instruments that try to quantify what is difficult to quantify. For example, how can education officials get a complete picture of a student’s learning and growth by giving a test that lasts a small fraction of the time they actually spent learning? Add to that the fact that the vast majority of the question are forced-choice questions (AKA, multiple choice) that give no opportunity for the student to think outside the box or explain their reasoning. However, I’ll refrain from ranting about standardized testing here – instead, I’ll rant about another instrument that attempts to quantify the unquantifiable – quantitative measures of text complexity, specifically Lexile scores.

If you know anything about the Common Core State Standards, you know that it is aimed at increasing “rigor” of instruction and the “complexity” of the texts students are able to read. The underlying premise, is that there is something wrong with our students (“they aren’t working hard enough”) and there is something wrong with our education system (“school isn’t challenging enough”). The writers’ remedy, of course, is to make everything more difficult so that students will be ready for more difficult tasks and texts when they enter college and the world of work. Of course, this is a simplified explanation, but you get the idea. This is the rationale behind Common Core’s demands for increased “text complexity.” Text complexity, as defined by the Common Core in ELA Appendix A, is made of three components – qualitative measures, quantitative measures, and considerations of the reader and task. Qualitative measures basically mean those features of a text that can only be seen by an attentive human reader. Quantitative measures refer to quantifiable features of a text, such as sentence length, sentence complexity, and word complexity, that can be measured using numerical scores (Lexile being the most common one I’ve seen used). And, of course, considerations of the reader and task refer to how well a text fits with a particular reader’s ability and disposition, and how difficult the tasks associated with it are.

The Common Core claims that each of the three features of complexity must be “used together” (Appendix A, page 4) to select texts for students to read which will be adequately complex. If this were actually the case in practice, I would not have much to argue against, except that, in my opinion, quantitative measures should be used sparingly (if at all). However, what the CCSS writers say and what they do are two entirely different matters. In the same Appendix in which they advocate for considering all three factors, they cite several studies showing a decline in the complexity of texts used in schools over a significant time period. Interestingly, all of these studies use only quantitative measures (sentence length, vocabulary difficulty, and Lexile score) to argue that text complexity is decreasing. Why are the Common Core writers arguing for multiple ways of measuring text complexity when their entire argument that we need to increase complexity is based on quantitative measures only?

Similarly, Achieve the Core, an organization founded by writers of the Common Core and aimed at helping teachers decipher it, gives quantitative measures priority in selecting classroom texts. Below is a direct quote from their directions for selecting texts.

“To choose texts that are on grade level for the CCSS, use three steps:

  1. Use quantitative measures to assign a text to a grade band.
  2. Use qualitative measures to locate a text within a specific grade band.
  3. Use professional judgment to decide how suited a text is for a specific instructional purpose with a particular set of students.” (Source)

In other words, as a teacher, I must make sure the books I choose for my students is in their “grade band” (i.e., grades 6-8, 9-10, etc.) based on a Lexile score or some other numerical measure. Let’s look at a quick example to see how this would relate to my classroom. Let’s say that I’m considering several books to teach my 8th grade English class, including Of Mice and Men and Freedom Walkers. The former choice is a canonical text traditionally taught in High School, and I might be concerned about my 8th graders being able to process some of the mature themes and language. But let’s ignore that for now, for argument’s sake. Freedom Walkers, on the other hand, is a fairly straight-forward, factual nonfiction book that gives a detailed look at one piece of the Civil Rights Movement (the Montgomery Bus Boycott), but isn’t as rich in sensory description, dialogue, and interest as some more “literary” texts that I might prefer. So, if I am following the directions of the writers of the Common Core, I should look at each text’s quantitative Lexile score first to see if it is in my grade-level band. Below is an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (page 38 in my edition).

“Although there was evening brightness showing through the windows of the bunk house, inside it was dusk. Through the open door came the thuds and occasional clangs of a horseshoe game, and now and then the sound of voices raised in approval or derision.

Slim and George came into the darkening bunk house together. Slim reached up over the card table and turned on the tin-shaded electric light. Instantly the table was brilliant with light, and the cone of the shade threw its brightness straight downward, leaving the corners of the bunk house still in dusk. Slim sat down on a box and George took his place opposite.”

And now, below, let’s look at an excerpt from Freedom Walkers by Russell Freedman (page 23 in my edition).

“Rosa Parks had taken a special interest in Claudette Colvin’s case. She knew Claudette. And she herself had suffered a similar experience twelve years earlier. In 1943, she had been thrown off a Montgomery bus for refusing to reenter through the back door after paying her fare. The bus driver had kept her money, ordered her to step outside, then driven away, leaving her standing on the sidewalk.”

Based on these excerpts, which I believe are fairly representative of the texts as a whole, which do you think is more challenging or complex? I would argue that Steinbeck’s writing is much more complex. Steinbeck writes in a way that creates an intricate sensory picture that takes some time for your brain to process – I found myself re-reading this section a couple of times to completely get a picture in my head of the light, shadow, and sounds in these two paragraphs. Freedman, on the other hand, writes his sentences in an extremely straight-forward and factual manner, which for most of my students is much easier to understand. However, you may notice that Steinbeck’s words are shorter than Freedman’s, overall. Thus, the Lexile scores of the first novel are significantly lower. The Lexile level of Of Mice and Men is 630L, placing in the 2-3 grade complexity band. Freedom Walkers‘ Lexile level, on the other hand, 1110L, placing it in the 6-8 grade band.

Therefore, if I am following the recommendations of Achieve the Core (as so many teachers and administrators are doing), I cannot use Of Mice and Men in my classroom, because it does not even fit in the grade band of my students. Presumably, then, the Common Core prohibits Of Mice and Men from being taught at all, because no one would argue that 3rd graders possess enough emotional maturity to process the novel. Therefore, I would probably choose something like Freedom Walkers, which is a great informational text about an important topic, but honestly seems a little boring for many students.

Put simply, Lexile scores don’t tell you much about a text. What a Lexile score is supposed to tell me about a text (namely, it’s readability or complexity) I could easily determine for myself by reading the book. In my opinion, the whole idea of using quantitative measures like Lexile is to create standardization, because teachers are no longer trusted as professionals to make decisions about what books their students should read. Lexile scores have also been used as a replacement for the Accelerated Reader program – in other words, that students must only read books independently that are within their Lexile band, and not anything outside of it. For me, anything that restricts teacher discretion and student choice in choosing texts without providing any benefit is fairly useless. That is why I choose to ignore Lexile scores.