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Common Core: How are books judged?

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Some time ago I wrote about a highly popular supplemental reading program used in thousands of schools called “Accelerated Reader” by Renaissance Learning Inc., which encouraged students to read books that were evaluated through a “readability” formula.  Under this scheme, Ernest Hemingway’s classic, “The Sun Also Rises,” gets 10 points and is recommended for kids less than halfway through fourth grade.  “Breaking Dawn,” the fourth book in Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, earns 28 points and is recommended for fourth graders, too. Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved,” which depicts a mother choosing to kill her daughter rather than see her enslaved, gets 15 points and a book level of 6.0, appropriate for sixth grade. Kids get rewards for amassing book points.

The readability formula used in assigning points to books in Accelerated Reader (which you can find here at AR Book Finder), is called ATOS, one in a number of such systems that purport to reveal how difficult a book is to read. ATOS (like other such readability formulas) doesn’t really measure the quality or complexity of a book’s content, but rather, measures its average sentence length, average word length in number of letters, word difficulty level, and total number of words. So, it turns out, that the first two lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address would be scored exactly the same as the same two lines–but written backwards.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

Those lines would have the same score as these:

Endure long can dedicated so and conceived so nation any or nation that whether testing, war civil great a in engaged are we now. Equal created are men all that proposition the to dedicated and liberty in conceived, nation new a continent this upon forth brought fathers our ago years seven and score four.

The reason I am reviewing all of this is because of the “text complexity” issues with the Common Core State Standards. This article in the latest edition of The New Republic, entitled “Federal Bureaucrats Declare ‘Hunger Games’ More Complex Than ‘The Grapes of Wrath: ‘The Common Core’s absurd new reading guidelines” by Blaine Greteman  starts this way:

Here’s a pop quiz: according to the measurements used in the new Common Core Standards, which of these books would be complex enough for a ninth grader?

a. Huckleberry Finn
b. To Kill a Mockingbird
c. Jane Eyre
d. Sports Illustrated for Kids’ Awesome Athletes!

The only correct answer is “d,” since all the others have a “Lexile” score so low that they are deemed most appropriate for fourth, fifth, or sixth graders. This idea might seem ridiculous, but it’s based on a metric that is transforming the way American schools teach reading.

Lexiles were developed in the 1980s by Malbert Smith and A. Jackson Stenner, the President and CEO of the MetaMetrics corporation, who decided that education, unlike science, lacked “what philosophers of science call unification of measurement,” and aimed to demonstrate that “common scales, like Fahrenheit and Celsius, could be built for reading.” Their final product is a proprietary algorithm that analyzes sentence length and vocabulary to assign a “Lexile” score from 0 to over 1,600 for the most complex texts. And now the new Common Core State Standards, the U.S. education initiative that aims to standardize school curricula, have adopted Lexiles to determine what books are appropriate for students in each grade level. Publishers have also taken note: more than 200 now submit their books for measurement, and various apps and websites match students precisely to books on their personal Lexile level.


Indeed, it turns out Morrison’s “Beloved” has the same Lexile score, 870L, as “James and the Giant Peach” by Roald Dahl,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, according to the LibraryThing website.

“Text complexity” is a big thing in the Common Core State Standards; according to

The Common Core State Standards Initiative places a strong emphasis on the role of text complexity in evaluating student readiness for college and careers.


Appendix A of the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards has a long and complicated explanation of “text complexity,” which you can read here, that reviews research said to show that the complexity of today’s reading demands for adults have held steady or risen over the past half century at the same time that the material students have read has gotten easier.

Another document, titled “Supplemental Information for Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy: New Research on Text Complexity,” provides more information about how texts should be selected for students of varying grades, and, it talks about a study that looked at  six computer programs for determining text complexity, and “validated” them as text measurement tools. They include ATOS by Renaissance Learning and The Lexile® Framework For Reading by MetaMetrics.

That document does also say that “texts” should be chosen for students by educators who “will employ professional judgment to match texts to particular tasks or classes of students.” But the emphasis on the “readability” formulas is clear, and disturbing.





Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · November 1, 2013

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