My Brother and I reform the American Educational System: Complaints about the Lexile Test

Many of you may know that I have an amazing younger brother (R). For those of you who don’t know, let me be the first to tell you: I have an amazing younger brother.
Trust me on this, I’m not biased at all.

My brother and I spend a lot of time reading together (when we’re in the same city) or giving each other recommendations for what to read (when we’re not). We talk about books ALL THE TIME. R. has forced me to stay awake until I finished a book he wanted to talk to me about (this was during my winter break, otherwise known as “the only time in the world I can sleep.” I was not pleased). The book, by the way, was Deadline by Mira Grant, and my ensuing discussion with R. was totally worth the lack of sleep. R. and I are bizarre like that. It freaks some people out.

Last summer, two poor, innocent members of my family were trapped in a car with me and my brother while we were talking about China Mielville’s The Scar, which is one of our favorite novels of all time. By the time we’d gone through a blow-by-blow plot summary and a careful analysis of every major character, and we were moving towards the inevitable comparisons with China Mielville’s other Bas-Lag novel, Perdido Street Station, our driver looked ready to claw his way out of the vehicle with his bare hands.

So, as you can probably tell, my brother is pretty passionate about books. (Did I mention he’s awesome?)

It is in this vein that I present to you the following story. For the record, I did ask my brother’s permission to post this – I’m not using him as an unwilling source of amusement!

R. sent me an email about an incident at his middle school:

 “At school today, in science, we’re starting a new project. You have to read a scientific article and summarize it and bla bla bla. The  usual. Then my teacher says that you should pick what you read by your Lexile score. Under my breath, I said “That’s so stupid!” But my teacher heard me! So he asked, “What’s so stupid?” So I said “I think that it’s unfair to regulate what students read by what they got on a test that for all we know could be very inaccurate. Students should challenge themselves, right? Students aren’t going to read things if you give them specific material. People should be able to read what they want! What if you wanted to read something interesting but it was too “challenging” for you? That’s why I said “that’s so stupid.”” And [the teacher] was speechless. Ha Ha Ha!”

Uh, have I mentioned that my brother is awesome? If teacher had called me out in middle school, I would have fallen out of my chair, and said something along the lines of “Ghlahbbshiiiirghportanggoooo bang bang, uh, what was the yyyyaaaarghing question?” And then I probably would have burst into flames. Or melted like the Wicked Witch of the West. But not only did R. have a non-melting response to the teacher, he had a GREAT response to the teacher. Seriously, we should have him writing education policy for the United States.

I think his comment to the teacher pretty much stands for itself, but since I like to blather on, I’ve got some additional information and some commentary.

If you don’t already know, American students in middle and elementary student get their Lexile score after taking the corresponding Lexile test.  I don’t know if it’s used outside the USA – if you are a foreign reader, and you know, speak up!* The Lexile score, in theory, measures reading ability and should allow the teachers to match students to “appropriate” books. Essentially, it’s a reading test. I never had to take it, but I think I only managed to avoid that era by only a year or two.

I understand the instinct behind the use of Lexile scores. Schools want students to read more, and think that if kids are discouraged by the books (or articles) they’re asked to read, they’ll read less. I also want to tread carefully, since there are probably reasons for using the Lexile Score that I’m not thinking of. But in the essentials, I think my brother’s right.

Part of the problem is sheer inaccuracy. The Lexile test is a high-pressure, timed examination. It cannot possibly replicate the conditions under which most students read. While supposedly the test tells us things about reading comprehension and analysis, instead, I think it tests kids’ abilities to work when faced with speed and stress. Neither of those factors is particularly important to good reading. As far as I know, kids aren’t strapped to their chairs and forced to read The Scarlet Letter in thirty minutes or less in their language arts classes (although that would have made my middle school years far more interesting).

Moreover, although I can understand using something like the Lexile scores to gauge a class’s general reading level (I don’t like it, but I can understand it), I think using Lexile scores to determine what kids should be reading is a terrible, terrible idea. The assumption behind the Lexile test – and the science teacher’s remarks – seems to be that what will get kids to read is reading material that is not too hard. And yes, it’s important not to discourage kids. But I seriously doubt any avid reader fell in love with books by going “Wow, that was not too hard! I want to do that again!” Or even “That article was not too hard! I want to learn more science now!”

So many of the problems we face in getting kids to read more are ones that take place before the book is even opened. The schools don’t have enough money. The teachers don’t have enough training. Kids don’t have time to read outside of school. Many students have serious problems outside of their academic life. It’s hard to concentrate on language arts when your Mother is sick, or your electricity is off, or you live in an unsafe neighborhood, or your classmates bully you. Those are important issues, and they need to be addressed. The Lexile Score is no solution. Nor do I have a solution to those problems.

I do, however, have an idea about what to do once we get students opening books.

If that first page is opened, I think a student’s interest in the book is determined not by the ease of reading, but by their interest in the book’s content. And I think that by focusing on the Lexile scores – on level of difficulty rather than level of interest – we are doing students a grave disservice.

I have no idea what my brother’s Lexile score is; I never did. I’ve bought him quite a few books; I’ve recommended even more, and he’s stolen an immoral quantity of novels out of my bookshelves. (Yes, R., if you’re reading this, I know about those. And I am not pleased).

I recommend books to my brother based oh the blind assumption that if he’s interested in them, he’ll read them regardless of how difficult they are. I’ll gladly admit that it’s a stupid assumption, but for the most part, it’s proven useful.  As I wrote above, my brother has read China Mielville’s The Scar – in fact, he’s read almost all of Mielville’s oeuvre. R. also read (and loved) Bram Stroker’s Dracula at the tender age of eleven. I’m pretty sure he’s read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Last summer, he read Azar Nafisi’s very sophisticated, intertextual autobiography Reading Lolita in Tehran for fun. None of these are typical 12 year old fare. And none of them are “easy texts” – even Mielville, the most “popular” of these writers,  has a knotty prose style, and his plots are complicated enough to give me headaches (of joy).

And if I’ve followed the content assumption with R., it’s because that’s the way I came to books. I read my first classic at eight. I took it off my parents’ bookshelf because the name was interesting. It had a strange cover. The print was tiny. I shouldn’t have liked it – but the first few lines described a girl my age being thrown in a haunted bedroom by her mean Aunt and her bullying Cousins, and I was captivated. I identified with her; I knew her; I had to know what happened to her. The book, of course, was Jane Eyre. If my parents had been using a miniature Lexile score, they probably would have taken Jane Eyre out of my hands and given me a more appropriate text. Which would have been a shame.

I want to be clear that I don’t think R. and I read Dickens and Bronte at a young age because we were some kind of prodigies.  Much as I’d like to believe that my family is fertile ground for young geniuses, those books should be within the power of most teenagers to read. That they don’t speaks more, in my opinion, to their interest in Jane Eyre than to their lack of reading skills.

When we make students read Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter and they seem completely uninterested, it’s a lot easier to blame it on their reading skills than to consider the issue of content. Maybe younger students nowadays can’t identify with Huckleberry Finn. Maybe they don’t care about Hester Prynn (sacrilege!). Maybe we should focus on finding books that students want to read – in hopes that someday they’ll turn to the books we want them to read.

So why aren’t we trying to find books that kids want to read?

A lot of it has to do with trust. We, as adults (I’m over eighteen! I’m totally an adult!) think that we know best for kids. And a lot of times, we do. But in this particular situation, I worry that our intransigence – our belief that we know their reading interests and their reading levels better than they do – leads to problems.

Yes, the content kids prefer might be Gossip Girl. Or The Hunger Games. Or Twilight. It’s okay. They’ll live; I promise. I went through a YA phase, and my parents freaked out. They wanted me to read Joseph Conrad. I wanted to read The Princess Diaries. But if I’d read Joseph Conrad when I was fifteen, I would have been wanted to drown the man in a teacup. Now, I really like Conrad. I also really like The Princess Diaries. Reading YA didn’t – and doesn’t – prevent me from reading and enjoying “literature.”

Yes, the content some kids want to read might have sex. It might have violence. It might have drugs. Good.  There are a lot of Middle Schoolers who deal with sex, abuse, violence, death, drugs, disease, bullying etc. on a daily basis. They should be able to read books that speak to them. We can’t just pretend that “grown up” problems are divorced from the lives of pre-teens and teenagers. Maybe we can even use it as an opportunity to talk about those issues with kids.

(I know. I just proposed that we talk about sex with kids. Someone arrest me).

Or maybe they’ll just prefer to read War and Peace. Or Gossip Girl. Or Whale Talk. In any case, they’ll be reading. And if they like what they’re reading, odds are, they’ll want to read more.

As R. said:  “People should be able to read what they want! What  if you wanted to read something interesting but it was too “challenging” for you?”

My brother: as awesome as Starbuck:

(No, I don’t know if Starbuck reads. But if she does, I guarantee she reads neither The Princess Diaries or Joseph Conrad. I’ve always pegged her as a Whale Talk gal myself.)

Anyone have other insights into the use of Lexile Scores? Am I not seeing something? How else can we get kids to read?

11 Comments on “My Brother and I reform the American Educational System: Complaints about the Lexile Test”

  1. R. says:

    Nice thinking Suzanne. I loved it!

  2. C.D. says:

    Merci, mon cheri! I had a good inspiration to work off of!

  3. danagb says:

    The article was great, but the BSG reference was the cherry on top

    • C.D. says:

      Thank you! I love BSG. I’m rewatching it with my brother, so I figured he would appreciate the Starbuck comparison.
      (Except that he’s not allowed to emulate her and start smoking.)

  4. Myriad says:

    Hear, hear! (YSP reference FTW! It seemed appropriate, all things considered.) One of my coworkers with the AVID program is an English teacher, and she’s very big on getting her students to read – anything. It could be the Onion or Twilight or the biography of a rap star or pretty much anything with more words than pictures, so long as they READ. It’s fantastic. Again, I say, hear, hear!

    It would also be interesting to see how the Lexile test treats students with dyslexia or other LDs.

    • C.D. says:

      *Gasp* Hear, hear! I haven’t heard that in so long! *Has giant YSP flashback moment*
      I now have an inexplicable desire to re-read Othello. And possibly Henry IV part 1. I miss YSP!
      I also wonder how the Lexile test deals with students with LDs. I’ve heard of at least one instance where a dyslexic student got a low score (despite being a strong reader in other circumstances), so it doesn’t seem like there’s any accommodation. I also tried a search on the Lexile website, but there doesn’t seem to be a single mention of dyslexia, which I find rather disheartening.

  5. Ben K says:

    Hey, just wanted to mention that there’s actually a third Bas-Lag novel, Iron Council. Didn’t know if you knew that. It’s… brutal. More so than Perdito Street Station, if less personally horrible (poor Lin…).
    …I’m kind of bad at commenting.

    • C.D. says:

      If it makes you feel better, I can spend up ten to fifteen minutes writing three line comments on blogs. Commenting freaks me out.Fortunately, I don’t think anyone knows what they’re doing, but… still. Anxiety.
      I did know there was a third Bas-Lag novel, but I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet (my public library near my school doesn’t own it, so I’m waiting to be home for the summer). I’m worried it won’t be as good as The Scar and Perdido Street Station (because, let’s face it, nothing could be as good as The Scar).
      And yeah, I agree about Perdido Street Station. The last two hundred pages or so were like getting run over by a train. Repeatedly (I mean, I loved it, but it was horrible). I don’t think I’ll ever get over Lin.

      • Ben K says:

        [i]Iron Council[/i] is… cataclysmic, in a way that [i]Perdito Street[/i] wasn’t. I really liked the ideas in it, and it had yet another play on the many, mutually-exclusive metaphysics of Bas-Lag (though the least compelling, to me. The mad science of the chaos device and the wistful possibilities of the Might Blade were just too good. Still interesting, just not quite as great.) but it’s something one should go into pre-warned.
        Also, where [i]The Scar[/i] was pirate adventure fiction in Bas-Lag, [i]Iron Council[/i] is a western. So there’s that.

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  7. Tytti says:

    ” I don’t know if it’s used outside the USA – if you are a foreign reader, and you know, speak up!”

    Well, of course it’s not used here in Finland, we speak Finnish. I don’t know about the English speaking countries. But I just found out about it and out of curiosity searched what people are saying about Lexile. Because I just think it’s one of the stupidest things I’ve heard in ages.

    We don’t read that much for school in Finland, at least not in my time, but we were free to choose the books we read. Of course sometimes there was this one book we all read or some theme and a list of books but nothing like that. Finns generally learn to read quite fast (we have subtitles in tv) and especially boys learn English fast because they play computer games. But saying that children of certain age should or shouldn’t be reading something is not really our style. Some will start reading Stephen King when they are 12 or something like that.

    The whole thing sounds even more ridiculous when you know that Finnish teenagers, after they had read a couple of translated Harry Potters, started reading them in English because they didn’t want to wait. And they had started studying English when they were nine. Of course the language isn’t that difficult but still they were reading it in a foreign language they had studied maybe 6-7 years.

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