By: Pat Austin
SHREVEPORT –I was at the ballpark this weekend watching a local college baseball game. As I took my seat I noticed a lady a couple of rows behind me reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and I wondered – does she know that’s below her Lexile level? She shouldn’t be reading that! The Book Thief, you see, has a 730 Lexile level score which places it at about grade 5 reading level.
Lexile levels are the basis of what Common Core uses to determine the complexity and acceptability for books in each grade level.
Lexile measures work similar to the old Accelerated Reader system, if you’re familiar with that. (Everything in education comes back around with a new name, eventually.) A Lexile score determines a book’s complexity and difficulty based on a measuring system of sentence complexity, vocabulary, and syntax. Theme and content don’t come into play which is why Lexile levels are billed as “a starting point” or a tool for determining a book’s acceptability for your reader.
The result is often bizarre.
For example, as noted by The New Republic back in October, Awesome Atheletes! by Sports Illustrated has a Lexile score of 1070 which puts it in the grade 9-10 range. On the other hand, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain receives a score of 720 which places it around the grade 4-5 area. Now, to be fair, the Lexile analyzer site designates books like Huck Finn with a “HL” notation along with the score which means that teachers and librarians should use this designation when assigning books “written at an elementary level” to struggling older or struggling readers. Huck Finn is then placed in the 12-16 age range; that’s probably fair.
To Kill a Mockingbird is scored 870 with no HL designation which places it at grades 4-5 level; there is no age recommendation assigned.
Based on this, Awesome Athletes! is more complex than To Kill a Mockingbird.
Back to The Book Thief: this book, if you haven’t read it or seen the film, is set during World War II in Germany; it’s about a young girl who steals books when she can find them; during bombing raids she reads to her neighbors to calm them until the bombing is over. Meanwhile, her foster family has a Jew hidden in their basement; the Jew is eventually captured and marched off to a concentration camp, which of course is traumatic to the girl as she has grown quite fond of him. The narrator of the story is Death. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think fifth grade might be a little young for both the subject matter and possibly the abstract narrative perspective of Death. But maybe that’s just me.
Common Sense Media assigns a recommended reading age of 13 for this book. (Common Sense Media lists Chelsea Clinton on its Board of Directors as well as Geoffrey Cowan from the Annenberg Foundation).
John Steinbeck’s 455 page story of human perseverance in a cross-country trek during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, receives a Lexile score of 680 (with no HL designation); “challenging words” in the text include “rusts,” “harmonicas,” and “boxcars”. Again, that’s grade 4-5 territory. Common Sense Media says age 15 for this one:
Parents need to know that this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about sharecroppers struggling to survive the Great Depression, fleeing the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma for California, is as harsh and gritty as its time. There’s drinking, smoking, swearing, and extramarital sex, and violence stalks the Joad family and their fellow migrants. But its realism and passion have made it a must-read for generations.
And again, to be fair, the Lexile system is meant to be used only as a tool. One of the demands of Common Core is the incorporation of more non-fiction reading which means that the teacher could bring in outside non-fiction articles or excerpts of documents to read alongside these texts which could increase the rigor and complexity of the entire novel unit. However, as I stated last week, the teacher no longer has this discretion. If The Book Thief is assigned to a ninth grade reading list, the tenth grade teacher can’t teach it even if the ninth grade teacher doesn’t teach the book.
The problem with the Lexile system, it seems to me, is that it ignores theme and content. If Common Core is meant to increase rigor, what is rigorous about Awesome Athletes? Why are we basing our reading choices on such a system? The answer is almost always “follow the money.” At least one of the developers of the Lexile system is associated with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who has poured millions of dollars into Common Core and PARCC. And there you have it. The selling out of our education system. It’s a tangled web once you start pulling away the layers.
Follow the money, but for crying out loud, let’s put some common sense back in the classroom.
Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.
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