Fifth Grade Is Too Late For Steinbeck?

Andrew Sullivan —  Nov 4 2013 @ 8:00am

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According to English professor Blaine Greteman, this seemingly bonkers system of rating “text complexity” is coming to a school district near you:

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.

Any attempt to quantify literary complexity surely mistakes the fundamental experience of literature.

No one has described that experience better than William Empson, whose Seven Types of Ambiguity wrote the book on literary complexity. A mathematician by training, Empson was no touchy-feely humanist, but he understood that the greatest literary language rarely made “a parade of its complexity.” He particularly admired Shakespeare’s description of trees as “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,” which he explained contained “no pun, double syntax, or dubiety of feeling”:

but the comparison holds for many reasons; because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth…. These reasons, and many more relating the simile to its place in the Sonnet, must all combine to give the line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind.

I try to teach my students to balance such complexities. But many of the smartest and best have learned the Lexile model too well. They’ve long been rewarded for getting “the point” of language that makes “a parade of its complexity,” and they’ve not been shown that our capacity to manage ambiguity without reducing it enables us to be thinkers rather than mere ideologues.

Update from a reader:

I get it, assigning numbers to books seems silly, especially when it leads to conclusions like Mr. Popper’s Penguins is “more complex” than The Grapes of Wrath. The lexile may be a perfectly good way to score “complexity” as it’s narrowly defined here. “Complexity” is just one criterion to consider when choosing books to assign to students. I doubt if any of the folks associated with the Common Core would claim that the lexile measures literary value. And to be clear, I think it’s foolhardy to have rigid rules that assign only books with certain lexiles to certain grades.

Upon graduating from high school, a student should be able to parse a simple contract or legal document. This can be tougher than reading Hemingway – and certainly a lot less pleasurable, and of less artistic value. But when choosing books for students to read, why not consider a book’s complexity, especially when there are other pedagogical goals besides the appreciation of literature?