Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Lexile Problem

A couple of weeks ago, at my annual year-end meeting with our school’s principal to talk about transitioning AJ into the next teacher, he mentioned AJ’s latest MAP test scores. “Have you seen his scores?” he asked me. At that time, I had not. “They are very high. I mean, VERY high.”

AJ’s school started MAP testing this year and AJ loves it because it challenges him. Although I am generally not a fan of the rapid increase in frequency of standardized testing – there were four testing periods this year, each lasting over a week – I think the nature of the MAP has helped teachers understand AJ a little better. If nothing else, it’s demonstrated to the school, using a tool it knows and trusts, that he needs individualization in class.

The MAP, which stands for “Measures of Academic Progress” is a computer-based self-leveling test administered by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). You can read what NWEA has to say about it here. The test is designed to be administered to all grades K-12 – it’s not limited by grade-level editions, so kids with advanced skills can go as far as their brains will take them. This can be an advantage, although the farther you go, the more concentration is required. This is sometimes a problem for younger kids with advanced skills, so the scores at the upper levels of the test are not always reliable. In one educators’ board where I was reading about the test, a teacher was saying that not all gifted kids turned up in the 98th percentile or higher on both reading and math, but most did in one or the other. And some liked the test for kids with test phobias or certain types of learning disabilities, because the test isn’t timed. Students can take as long as they want to figure out the answers to the questions. The test ends after they’ve made a certain number of errors.

Schools have the option to take the test multiple times during the year and most do, because this allows them to gauge student progress. AJ’s school takes it once each trimester. The repetition of the testing allows teachers to get a number for “student growth” -- the difference of the scores between test iterations. With the final report card, we got a printout of all AJs scores and a number that represents his growth in each segment of the test – in the case of AJ’s school, there are scores for Math and for Reading.

AJ’s math scores are very high, but his growth was lower than average. This is typical of kids performing at the high end. And his pattern of growth was a zig-zag – the second trimester’s score was lower than the first, but the third was the highest of the three. I expect the math scores are generally less high as compared to the reading scores, because these tests are achievement tests, not aptitude tests. In order to get a really high score, you would probably need to have had some exposure to the topics it deals with. AJ’s score suggests that he correctly answered some questions about algebra and geometry, which he’s never studied. But that’s where he topped out. At some point you need to know the rules and may not be able to just figure things out.

The reading scores were a different story. He started high, in the 99th percentile and still made steady upward progress. His final score was well into the zone expected for a high school senior. His growth score was also more than 4 times the norm for his grade. The difference in growth between math and reading is, I think, partly a function of the way he has learned language skills (largely on his own and at home) versus math (mostly at school). I also think the school has done a better job at meeting his needs in reading. He hasn't been getting much above-level math, so it's not surprising he didn't progress as much there.

For reading, there is an additional score, the lexile. The lexile is a measure that teachers use for assigning reading. Huge numbers of books are given a lexile score or range. Armed with your child’s lexile number, you can go to and look up books that might be appropriate for his/her reading level. AJ’s lexile was surprisingly close to the maximum possible score on a test designed for K-12.

And this is where things get complicated for a kid like AJ. AJ’s school has just started a new reading program where students are supposed to read a certain number of books from their lexile range. So I went to and typed in his number. I came up with a long list of books, many of which appeared on my college and graduate school reading lists. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Assorted works of Walter Benjamin. Novels by Faulkner and Joyce. John Donne’s sermons. The biography of composer Anton Webern written by one of my former professors was deemed on the low end of his lexile range. This made me laugh. Hard. AJ may be able to handle the vocabulary in these books, but there’s no way he’s ready to really read them (I’m not sure I’m even ready to read some of them), nor do I think he’d be likely to have any interest in them. He just finished the third grade. He thought the Marmaduke movie was funny. There's more to books than a lexile score. Does the lexile even mean anything?

Fortunately, allows you to cross-reference by the age of the reader. Unfortunately, though, most of the books are miscategorized or not categorized at all, so the age limitation is pretty useless. A search of fiction for ages 9-15, for instance turned up only 25 books, several of which would have been inappropriate (Harold Bloom’s biography of Stephen King, for instance). And a number of appropriate books from the full list – Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events books, for example – didn’t appear on the age-limited list. Moreover, some of the books had puzzling age ranges applied to them. Why, for instance, is the very academic book African-American Women’s Health and Social Issues, edited by Catherine Fisher Collins, labeled for ages 8 to 12?

I am working under the assumption that the school will not hold to AJ’s lexile range. While I’m certainly open to him reading as broadly as he wants to, I don’t see the point in him reading things that his experience will not allow him to understand just because the book has the correct number. For kids like AJ, it is a real challenge to find books that challenge their reading and thinking skills, but which also engage them by being well suited to their experience and interests.

So what’s a parent to do?

1. Get recommendations. Ask teachers, ask friends, search the boards at Hoagie's Gifted. A few years ago Freshhell and I started making a list of books that worked for our kids. We’ve continued to update the list with things our own kids have read and suggestions from others, including many readers here. You can find the list here. There’s also a permanent link to it in the sidebar. It's a list I turn to again and again.

2. Preread. When he was younger, I used to preread all of AJ’s books. Now I can’t keep up with his speed, so it’s lucky for me that he’s old enough that he can find his own books. But prereading let me figure out where problem areas might be so that I could be prepared to discuss them. For instance, when he was reading a book that took place in the Civil Rights era, I didn't want him reading the word "colored" without context and without talking about racial language. It turned out, though, that AJ totally didn't understand the term had anything to do with race. He figured the character that someone called "colored" had tattoos (he was 6 at the time). I was glad to be able to help him understand the story, but I also was reminded that kids reading books that are out of their experience often either gloss over or reconfigure the things they don't understand to fit in with what they know.

3. Read together. We are big on social reading in this house. At bedtime, Mr. Spy reads with him first and then I do. Sometimes AJ wants to read out loud for a while. Sometimes I do all of it. Currently, AJ and I are reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Tale of Troy, which is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey that I loved as a kid. The vocabulary is pretty challenging (and a little old-fashioned), there are a lot of unfamiliar names, and a lot of references to the culture of ancient Greece that AJ doesn’t know about. Reading the book together lets us talk about some of the unfamiliar words and fill in the background. I’m also able to connect the dots to the Percy Jackson stories he’s read, with also draw on Greek mythology. Reading together allows for a deeper experience with a book.

4. Free range reading. While pre-reading can help a child find the right book, and reading together can help with deeper understanding, it's also important to let kids explore on their own. Like AJ, I was an advanced reader. When I was seven or eight, I was given special permission to use the adult collection of the public library. Children had different library cards that only allowed them to check out from the children’s section. But I got an adult card and could go anywhere. Freedom! My mom turned me loose. I don’t remember what I checked out on that first trip, but I remember taking my time. It seemed like such a big responsibility to pick the right book. But soon I was wandering through there regularly. I read a lot of literature that was perfect for me. And I remember being slightly obsessed with a book called Ginny about a girl who’d been in a terrible accident and nearly died but who had a long but miraculous recovery. At some point, I discovered the shelf with Colette books and found a book “Claudine at School” that seemed to be about a girl not much older than me. I checked it out. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but I read it. I read all the Claudine books. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But honestly, the only thing I can remember from them now is how her nanny or maid had breasts like melons. I thought that was hilarious. I do remember picking them up again when I was older and being properly horrified. But I just didn't understand all the stuff that makes Colette Colette when I was in elementary school, and so I kind of ignored it. So yes, I read some inappropriate books, but so what? Most of the time I checked out books from the kids section anyway. I thought they were more fun. But I got the message that I could read anything and could make my own decisions about what is right for me. And isn’t that more important? It was to me. Still is.

5. Own books. Last week, Laura Miller wrote in Salon about a study that correlated household book ownership to the level of education achieved by children in the household. The study suggested that even more than socio-economic status, having books yielded better school performance, the more books, the better. Having a lot of books in your house sends the message to your kids that books and reading matter. Encouraging your kids to prowl through the shelves can encourage “free range reading” – a safari right in your own home. And having books in your house means there's always something to do.

6. Make connections. When the books are hard, it’s easy for a child to get discouraged. When AJ has expressed an interest in something challenging, I usually try to provide some backup, some other activities that get at the topic from a different angle. With the Troy book, for example, we found some easier reading at the library that filled in some of the background holes. We’ve looked at pictures of Greek art and will look at some in person in a week or two when we pay a visit to the Art Institute. We’ve looked at maps. I showed him the journal I wrote and photos I took when I went to Greece with my sixth grade class after studying ancient Greece in school. And we’ve signed him up for a class on mythology with a couple of his friends who are also interested in it. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m too overbearing. It’s not really the way it came about. It’s AJ’s interest that has guided us. But by expanding the boundaries of the project beyond the covers of one book, I hope I’m giving him the tools to make his own explorations.

I’m sure there are more. How do you handle the reading level/age disconnect? What do you recommend?