Monday, September 10, 2012

Centennial Post - Deciphering The (Lexile ) Numbers - Education as Big Business

Preface: The Score Letter
I think every family with two working adults and multiple school-age children has that table that gathers piles of paper. You know the one that I mean. Our main one (because we have many) is the kitchen island. One stack is generally for comic books and various non-urgent papers, another stack is bills, and my wife has her own stack of "i will go through these as soon as I have a spare moment...say 2020?" papers. My children have followed the example of the parents with stacks of "you may want to look at these" papers (in which every permission slip, late homework notice, etc. invariably ends up). When I got home one night last week, I noticed an official letter on the top stack for my eldest, the ten-year-old Daughter Prime.

The letter described a formal exam taken by all students to determine her LEXILE score. The score, the letter went on to explain, was a measure of reading comprehension that had been validated seven ways from Sunday and had a great many uses for teachers and parents. I could find out more information by going to and reading about the score there.
End Preface

Thoughts on Milestones and Education Reform
As I write this post, my hundredth on the geekreflection site since @40ishoracle and I decided it would be a hoot to share our thoughts with the world, I have been thinking about the changes that have been happening in education in the short time since i set foot in the classroom 15 years ago. Back then, high-stakes testing was not a significant focus of classroom activity nor was it a significant piece of the educational dialogue. In most schools, students were told that it was a measure of what you had learned in class and was not something over which you should stress. Exit exams were in place at the high-school level and classes had been created to prepare or remediate the lowest potential scorers, but it had not affected the students who were likely to pass (note: i spent my first three years of teaching in low-track and test remediation courses -- the youngest teachers often did).

The tide had not yet turned against teachers in the political rhetoric. Our job was still considered professional and difficult and while there was a murmur of anti-union rhetoric starting, it did  not have the venom that is present in today's attacks on teachers. Movies that were made talked about difficult environments and socially ingrained issues (which could include clueless administrators and burned out teachers) but often focused on the need for committed and dedicated adults as a key factor in turning around a troubled school (note: this is still presumed to be true in the sound-bytes of most politicians, just not in any of the legislation that they produce).

Education as a business was beginning to gain some ground with charter schools being touted as the market-based solution to the woes of the most struggling schools. The focus on the profitability of the classroom was limited to textbook publishers and a few very specific educational technology providers, particularly in Math and Science. Today, my mailbox fills up with catalogs promising me improved test scores, pre-packaged curricula that strives to take the wild-card factor of the teacher out of the equation as much as possible, and every kind of metric-based, value-added software on the planet to pre-test, address, student-personalize, and teacher-assess my way to a bright future where we will be competitive with the overseas armies of better standardized testers.

Interlude: A Look into Lexile
My wife, having read the letter, asks me what a lexile of "1377" actually means. I had no idea. So we went to the website. On the website, we learned that:
  • The Lexile was not a grade-based equivalent score (you should not use this to see how your student is doing in class or how a school program is doing in preparing your child)
  • The Lexile is not a comparative - no data will be released or found on where your child is in comparision to other children of the same age or grade
  • The Lexile is an independent measure of comprehension, measured on its patented scale - don't try to use this score to draw any conclusions whatsoever about - well - anything.
In fact, the only thing that we were supposed to use the Lexile score to do was to type it into a database to find Lexile-scored books that would be appropriate for my 10 year old to read.

That's it. Plug the number and get the book list. So that is what we did...
End Interlude.

Choosing Between Two Masters
The disturbing part about the education-as-business model is not that there are people who want to make money off of education. We live in a capitalistic world. If there is a market, someone will make money. The disturbing part is that this system, devoid of any kind of common-sense oversight (dare I say it, "regulation") can easily twist itself into the worst the marketplace has to offer. Think of the millions (low estimate) of dollars being spent by school districts to measure teacher value-add. School districts that are cutting teachers and support staff, raising class sizes, and choosing refurbished netbooks for their students are investing in a resource that has dubious validity in improving actual learning and slightly less dubious validity in improving test scores. Maybe the money should be spend in actually validating a connection between test scores and learning...or test scores and teacher effectiveness...or test scores and -- any connection -- that would at least be some interesting research.

Interlude II: Plugging and Chugging
The Lexile choose-a-book system is relatively simple. Enter the score and press enter. There is even a place to enter some rudimentary information to try to get a book list without the Lexile score (grade level, reading easy/hard, etc.). Once the score is entered, you select categories. My daughter is into post-apocalyptic dystopias (Hunger Games; Among the Hidden), so I chose sci-fi/fantasy. and the results (drumroll please):

The recommendations for a Lexile of 1377. Witchcraft and Eroticism
Well, that was disturbing. After repeated attempts, I could pull nothing but literary criticism. I am not sure if there is age-appropriate lit.crit for a ten year old, but I prefer to think that if it exists, it does not articulate the correlation between sex and science-fiction.

Fotunately, there are some limiters by age as well as Lexile score, so i decided to play around with those as well. I chose to limit the age range between 10-12. As a proud parent, I had to give her a few more years of range.

The good news is that the limiters did erase some of the suggestions. The bad news is that a) my daughter was still stuck firmly in the world of literary criticism (does no one in the 1300 range read fiction?) and many of the titles that I thought a little mature for the pre-teen set were still suggested:

YES MEANS YES: Straight feminism fun with fetishes...
Clearly being a dad has turned me into a prude. I noted the book to download into my wife's Kindle and decided to start over from the beginning. Cleared my cache. Entered 6th Grade, reads above her grade level. The results: lots of lit.crit. I narrowed the categories to fiction only. Those results constituted the type of writing that would drive children of all ages far from reading.

Finally, despondent, I re-entered a lexile range, limited to age 11-12 (i was a little weary), and limited it to straight more choice reading for my daughter:
One Book Available
There you have it. One book available. The 208 pages MONSTER MEN by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Happy reading, dear.
End Interlude

A Twisted Business
This summer, I got to listen to Sal Khan describe the humble beginnings of the Khan Academy: a tutorial for a young, bright relative who was struggling with math. This was before his dream of providing "a world class education to any child, anywhere". This was before Microsoft founders and the Gates Foundation labeled this system a great boon to education.  As I listened to him, the image that I could not shake was that he was sincere and inspiring. That his simple idea and aspirations for a future where money and location did not preclude access to an education, had been perverted by politicians and businessmen who saw the potential to sell a system that could replace teachers.

He specifically responds to critics, saying that the videos make excellent supplements to the relationship between the teacher and student necessary in the best of educational environments. And yet, entire charter schools are set up with Khan-Cubicle formats for learning math. Teachers are threatened subtly and not-so-subtly with replacement by video or replacement by younger teachers -- well, both methods are at least cost effective.

Reflection: This Piper Must be Paid
When I asked librarians about the Lexile, they had all heard of it. All knew that it was a measure of reading comprehension, had some vague memories of it being used to mark books. None of the librarians I talked to recalled using it as an essential instrument in helping students choose books. These librarians had list-servs, colleagues, recommendations from other students, and their own training and experience. They did not need these scores. But that was then...

The same school district that provided this most-excellent diagnostic resource is clustering or eliminating librarian positions. In some cases, schools are fortunate to have a librarian assistant a few days a month. No time to create effective book clubs, setup programs for encouraging reading, or learn enough about a class's context, let alone an individual student's to recommend a good book. Now we use Lexiles.

(note: in direct violation of the spirit of the score, the Lexile is also used by the district as a contributing piece of data to determine who needs additional reading resources. Evidently someone is willing to match the number to a reading level).

  • The Lexile system is contracted out to standardized tests in order to provide scores to test-taking school districts - money.
  • Publishers work to have their catalogs scored and listed on the ever-important find-a-book list - more money.
  • School districts test students independently to give students a lexile score - even more money.

Money that could be spent on books
Money that could be spent on librarians
Money that could be spend on teachers

But politicians want numbers and companies want money.
Its just too bad that the students are the ones who end up paying.