When I first began teaching reading, using Read 180, the word “lexile” entered my lexicon. That was in 2005. Now, the word is household to most every teacher who teaches reading in some capacity.
First let me say that lexile scores can be helpful. In the age of quantities and bell curves, data and accountability, there is more pressure than ever to prove that students are improving, and being able to cite increasing lexile scores can be positive for student and teacher alike.
I am guilty of using the score just as much as anyone. I’ve used the scores as evidence for trying to keep YA in my classroom. (You can see that flop here.) I’ve dropped the “L” word in almost every grant to purchase books I’ve applied for. I’ll even use the scores to defend myself in this post. But it’s not because I believe it is the best way to judge a book; it’s just a decent and quick indication of a book’s difficulty. That much is true. But it’s also convenient because everyone wants a number. Ironically enough, it takes numbers to approve a piece of literature in 2014. It’s just what it takes to justify getting books into the hands of kids anymore. But here’s the rub: I’m not sure lexile scores are doing that in this educational climate. At least not with YA.
This is not a Common-Core-bashing post, but like any new educational regimen, there are kinks—and I do think this is one. The chart below shows appropriate Lexile scores per grade level. To administrators and teachers who don’t really know which literary titles are given which scores, the table looks standard. It’s education as we know it: numbers.
It’s when you start to dig into those numbers that something looks amiss. If we can expect the CCSS standardized assessments to test these levels of reading, we are all in trouble. For instance, a time-honored piece of canonical literature, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, has a score of 630L according to lexile.com. Now, look back at the chart above. Technically, OMAM could be taught, and its level tested, in the 2nd grade. We know that won’t happen and the comparison is quasi ludicrous, but to administrators seeking to approve/disapprove a book based on its hard data, this could present a conundrum. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte sits at an 820L, and if my Advanced Placement 12th graders had to struggle through it, imagine a 4th grader’s attempt to test on text of that difficulty level. The Awakening by Kate Chopin comes in at a 960L, so at least we’re seeing borderline high school numbers there, but really? Could high school freshmen read, understand, and answer impossibly difficult questions about a text of that level? (If you’ve seen the pilot assessments, you know that difficult text in addition to difficult testing methods means disaster for all.) The numbers this chart aspires to are masochistic at least, unrealistic at best. But I don’t for a second think that the aforementioned books will disappear from high school curricula. Why? They are “time-tested” and they represent too much of an investment in schools that own these books already. But what does this mean for YA?
Most YA titles range from 600-950L. While those scores can look great compared to the Hemingways and Steinbecks that score fairly low, YA scores will almost always stay on that lower range, and thus in upper-elementary and middle school “testability” level. The normed scores from grades 9-12 set the bar at approximately Impossible. Are there any YA titles out there with a score above 1000? Not even the wordtabulous John Green scores that high, and we know that his books are full of lovely vocabulary, syntax, and conflict. But while “classics” can stay in the curricula because of their label, why would an administrator keep low-ranking YA without a label that says, “This is safe because it’s been in schools since there were cavemen”?
What do you notice about these YA titles commonly seen in curricula around the U.S?
Looking for Alaska by John Green, 930L
Deadline by Chris Crutcher, 880L
The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness 860L
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, 850L
Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, 820L
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 810L
Unwind by Neal Schusterman, 740L
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky, 720L
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, 690L
The Road by Cormac McCarthy, 670L
Fallen Angles by Walter Dean Myers, 650L
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie, 600L
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, 550L
Not a one of these books scores high enough to contend with 9th grade reading levels much less Shakespeare and Tolstoy. Now, we all know that the chart above is the goal, not the be-all-end-all, but isn’t this just another unattainable standard that makes us feel like we aren’t doing our jobs well? If the goal is to get our freshmen to read Anna Karenina (1080L) and Heart of Darkness (1050L), we will fail. Students will hate us, and we will hate ourselves. How will we be able to justify introducing books to kids that they will identify with, interact with, and find solace in if those books aren’t on the level on which we can expect them to be tested?
For full disclosure, yes, there is the clause in the CCSS literature that says something about age-appropriateness in text selection. But, will the people who approve purchase orders and curriculum decisions want numbers, or will they want explanations about why a book is appropriate? What will parents want their kids to read—the books that they have little interest in reading themselves because the text is so incredibly difficult and/or boring, or the books that keep the pages flying, minds racing, and hearts pulsing? In my experience, parents almost always want the former. Take it a step further though: When YA is challenged and books are taken through board committees for dissection, will a low lexile score, juxtaposed to the Common Core expectations, make a book worth the fight to uninvested parties who don’t want controversy anyway? Because let’s face it, only literary vigilantes go to war for books that offend and score below the bar.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t schools and administrators out there doing it right. There are those amazing places that give teachers and students choice and where reading lists are defended as sacred, lexiles and Common Core be damned. But in the era where budget cuts meets Standardized Everything meets nervous decision-making meets higher stakes than ever, lexiles are just another hurdle in the way of real literacy.
Or maybe I’m just paranoid.
P.S. Check out these lexiles from lexile.com. If these pass the bar, YA should, too:
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, 990L
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, 910L
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, 880L
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 870L
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, 850L
Dracula by Bram Stoker, 800L
The Catcher in the Rye, 790L
Lord of the Flies by William Golding, 770L
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway 730L
Night by Elie Wiesel 570L