Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin

I found this Excel spreadsheet online yesterday and thought I would share. It was created by Scholastic education support and lists the quizzes which, I suppose, teachers can administer in class for new books. At least, I think that's what it is. The spreadsheet also lists the Lexile Level, Reading Level, Lexile Code, and word count of hundreds of books. At the bottom, you can find the tabs that break out K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and High School.

For the Reading Level, the first number is the corresponding grade, and the second is the month within that grade. So, a 5.3 (which is what Return to Exile received) means that half of the students in the third month of the fifth grade should be able to read it. The Lexile and Reading levels take into account things like sentence complexity, vocabulary, etc., not content (I don't think they do anyway). Basically, they feed the book through a computer and it spits out the score.

Another interesting thing is the Lexile Code. For example, the code "HL" (high-low) means that the book is intended for an older audience, but it's written for a much younger audience. Around half of the high school books get an "HL". These are generally books that teachers recommend to struggling readers because they are easier to read. It's also interesting to me that there doesn't seem to be much difference between the Lexile Levels for high school and grades 6-8. My Lexile score of 800 is higher than all but 14 of the 42 high school books and 22 of the 65 books for 6-8 graders.
On word count, Return to Exile comes in at number 5 overall, across all grade levels. Here are the top five, in terms of word count, with their respective measures:
  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollow by J.K. Rowling (Lexile: 980 Reading: 7.4 Word: 196,651 Interest Level: 6-8)
  2. Fly Trap by Frances Hardinge (Lexile: 1000 Reading: 8.5 Words: 137,626 Interest Level: 6-8)
  3. Department Nineteen by Will Hill (Lexile: 940 Reading: 7.3 Words: 131,475 Interest Level: HS)
  4. City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare (Lexile: 750 Reading: 4.6 Words: 119,428 Interest Level: HS)
  5. Return to Exile by E.J. Patten (Lexile: 800 Reading: 5.3 Words: 115,135 Interest Level: 6-8)
What's interesting to me about these measures is that they seem to represent short-term understanding (can a person read and understand a sentence), but not long-term understanding (can they read and process the story). Obviously, there's a simple algorithm for measuring sentence complexity (number of commas, number of words, frequency of word appearance, etc.) whereas long-term understanding, say over the space of five hundred pages, is not as easy to quantify, and therefore doesn't appear in lead indicators (evaluative measures used to judge a book before reading it--sort of like judging a book by it's cover, but without the negative connotation, or the cover). After all, what kind of score could you give to thematic unity, or character depth, or plot complexity? The scores wouldn't mean anything without a common standard, and even then they'd be completely subjective because people would have to assign them.

Because of this, long-term understanding is measured by trailing indicators, like post-reading quizzes (which is the very thing this spreadsheet is offering). But many of the quizzes I've seen (and I'm not talking about the quizzes in this spreadsheet, which I haven't seen) don't measure long-term understanding either because they are made up of simple, multiple choice questions with standardized answers. A question that asks a reader to select the theme from among four options doesn't show that a person understands the theme; it just shows that they can recognize it when they see it.

Multiple choice questions represent a consumer approach to test taking because they simplify the world of possibilities and serve up only four options, one of which is right, and the rest of which are wrong. They don't ask a person to consider alternatives, or come up with a better answer--to go beyond what's there and actually produce something original. Multiple choice questions narrow a person's focus, blinding them to their own creativity, and our reliance on these questions as the single greatest measure of a student's ability is a travesty.

This isn't a teacher problem; it's a system problem. Teachers, for the most part, do an amazing job given all the roles they fill, their limited resources, and the constraints they have to work with.

The problem is that our system sucks. We value things that can be quantified and easily measured over things that can't, when in fact there should be a balance between quantifiable information consumption and unquantifiable original production (not regurgitation).

Now, I'm straying off topic here, but I feel a rant coming on.

When kids are young, in kindergarten and first and second grade, and you ask them what they want to be when they grow up, the majority will name some sort of creative endeavor: artist, writer, inventor, etc. What's more, they have brilliant, wacky, and creative ideas. My children's imagination is so much greater than my own. They can think of outrageous things that I couldn't begin to dream of. For them, all possibilities are open. They are the ultimate producers. But I know that as they go through the education system, their thinking will become more structured, their imagination will shrink, and they will be forced to face "reality," which is an absolute mess, if you ask me. The things they do so easily now will become so much harder for them because their "education" will turn them from producers into consumers. Then, when they reach college and the "real world," they will be asked to become producers again, and they will struggle, and they will repeat all the mistakes we are making. Their world will have become as limited as their imagination, and I mourn for the day.

The system problem doesn't lie solely with multiple choice answers, of course, which are fine when balanced against exploratory, creative production. The problem, in fact, lies with college. Yes, I am blaming college--or rather, the requirements a student must meet in order to get into a "good" one; namely, a high GPA and a high test score on a quantitative test. In other words, colleges don't care if you can produce new things in exciting and creative ways; they only care if you can regurgitate the information you've consumed over the years better than anyone else. I even wrote a free verse poem about it while I was in college:

Open your brain and close your mind,
We have a wonderfully normal distribution for you,

Keep your hands and feet inside at all times,
And we’ll make sure you learn what we tell you.

Reason, you’ll find, is of an awfully wonderful design,
That allows you to think, and not think, at the same time,
But let’s ignore that and move on to the next point,
Which you must learn before the lesson’s over.

We’re all the same deep down and underneath,
Except for the fundamental differences,
Some perform and some don’t but the difference is always normal,
So let’s package it and tell you who you are (you’ll be the better for it).

Focus on the good, but focus on the bad,
Find the problems and fix them when you can,
Weakness is something that’s good in other people, but not good in you,
Because everything is relative, as you’ll come to see.

But things aren’t relative, they’re fixed,
That’s how you know we’re right,
And you’re only as good as your last A, and only as bad as we tell you,
You’re not a person, but a collection of grades we give you.

So let us tell you who you are, and when to speak, and what to speak about,
Then we’ll tell you how good you are at telling us what we just told you,
And if you tell it well, you’ll be rewarded, but if you don’t, it’ll be recorded
And appear on your permanent record for all to see.

We can’t measure a person, so we measure people,
And break you up into grades (it’s relative you see),
Put them together, and that’s you (and you’re the better for it),
But don’t worry,

The lesson’s over and there’s no Reason to think, or not to think,
And when you’re done, you’ll see, you’ll think just like everybody else does,
The way they should; you’ll think like me (and you'll have the GPA to prove it).

I actually wrote that poem for a class I took from Hal Gregersen, a master educator who understood the value of creativity and had the flexibility to work it into his curriculum--a flexibility that teachers in primary and secondary education all too often lack due to the push towards mandated, quantitative standardization and ridiculous measures. There is a balance. If the top ten colleges in the U.S. changed their entrance requirements, and added some kind of exploratory, creative requirement--giving it equal weight against GPA and test scores--the world would change. The evaluation would come not by looking at the answers students are giving, but by examining the questions they are asking. Because in the end, all creativity starts with a question, even if that question is nothing more than "how can I do it better?"

Wow. I really went off topic there. Anyway, the point is, Lexile measures are cool, there needs to be a better balance between consumption and production, and the system sucks.

Down with the man!

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