Susan Ohanian: Data-derived student reading lists fail

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Susan Ohanian of Charlotte, a longtime teacher and author of 25 books on education policy and practice. 

An article in VTDigger (State launches new math and reading ed tech initiative) reveals that Vermont has contracted with MetaMetrics, an education assessment and data analytics company, to provide materials for Vermont’s K-12 schools. We are told that “MetaMetrics ‘Lexile’ and ‘Quantile’ products suggest books, worksheets, and instructional videos based on a student’s individual math and English scores. Those scores are generated using a student’s results on standardized tests.”

Vermonters need to  shout “Wait a minute!” before handing over their kids to this heir of Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose 1911 tome “Principles of Scientific Management” promised to create a utopian society of perfect efficiency. Today, Taylor’s heirs offer us the nightmare world of Big Data systematizing everything: schools tracking student “outputs”  with the promise of optimal statistical outcomes. Educational historian Herbert Kliebard called this “a veritable orgy of efficiency,” with teachers positioned as delivery agents for what Big Business dictates. In “Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations,” Pulitzer Prize finalist Nicholas Carr noted that this is where “Puritanism and fascism meet and exchange fist bumps.” 

As a longtime reading teacher I have  scrutinized the MetaMetric’s Lexile Framework that claims to establish norms for reading for each grade level. Let’s look at grade 3 where they say a student in the 50th to 90th percentile should be reading books with Lexile scores from 645 to 980. If we look at 730 titles, we get “The Book Thief,” a book The New York Times called “brilliant and hugely ambitious,” cautioning that “a book so difficult and sad may not be appropriate for teenage readers.” Also at 730 are the decidedly adult titles Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms”; Patricia Cornwall’s “Black Notice,” in which the decomposed remains of a stowaway lead Dr. Kay Scarpetta on an international search; “The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx, an author Publishers Weekly noted “routinely does without nouns and conjunctions.”  

Reminder: According to the Lexile “scientifically calculated calculations,” purchased by the state of Vermont, a reader with a third grade reading level has 79% probability of  comprehending texts labeled 730 well enough to understand them. Would any parent consider any of the above titles for bedtime reading with their 8-year-old?

Kid favorites labeled 730 include “Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” and a variety of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. 

The Lexile formula looks at number of syllables in words and sentence length, not at substance. Any savvy teacher will tell you that kids love long words: elephant, hippopotamus, dinosaur, Mrs. Tiggle-Winkle, Captain Underpants, the Prisoner of Azkaban. 

Lexile decrees that the average third grader should be reading in the range of 450 to 980: Robert Ludlum’s “The Bourne Identity” clocks in at 650, Margaret Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” 670, “Grapes of Wrath” 680 (along with “Charlotte’s Web”), Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” 750, Stephen King’s “Doctor Sleep” 760. Steven Kellogg’s picture book “Prehistoric Pinkerton” and Suzanne Collins “Hunger Games” are 810; “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” ranks 950.

Amazon frequently posts the Lexile Measure on books, and Tess Gerritson, an Edgar Award nominee Stephen King describes as “better than Michael Crichton,” was ticked off when she found out the Lexile 730 on her book “Gravity” means it’s suitable for upper second grade and lower third grade kids. In her words: “Gravity is so full of NASA and engineering terminology that it requires a glossary to explain the vocabulary.” She found that her medical thriller “Harvest” was rated as even easier fare, at 620 (mid-level for second graders). 

Long ago, the Vermont Agency of Education tossed out the 1968 Vermont Design for Education, which combined what was known about how children along with extensive conversations across the state to determine the unique and general needs and desires of communities. In return, Vermont got some federal money for promising to obey the federal formulae. After that, Vermont signed on for more federal formulae: the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy and their “New Research on Text Complexity” which plays this Lexile numbers game. Don’t try complaining. David Coleman, the lead architect for the Common Core Standards and currently head of the College Board, became infamous for his pronouncement, “People don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.” 

In a message to parents, Scholastic Books drinks the Kool-Aid and brings the numbers game home: “Lexile levels are scientifically and mathematically assigned based on the difficulty and readability of a book. Once you know your child’s Lexile level, you can search for books that match this level to expand your home library and encourage daily reading practice in your own home.”  Vermont parents should be grateful that they have knowledgeable school and public librarians and teachers able to make good recommendations based not on computer-driven numbers but on a deep understanding of children and books.

If Vermont is serious about improving education outcomes for children not currently doing well, then they should start reform by making sure all children have adequate housing, food, and a ready supply of enticing books.


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