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Lexile: Will All Books Need This Reading-Level Rating?
Calvin Reid -- 8/10/98
Although widespread use of its text evaluations is just beginning, the Lexile Framework for Reading, a new technology and instructional method designed to measure and improve reading comprehension, has been adopted by a number of school districts and seems to be growing in popularity as a tool to help poor readers. And although Baker &Taylor and Ingram are enthusiastic about Lexile and trade book houses are taking a wait-and-see posture, educational publishers may be forced by state adoption requirements to accept the Lexile ratings.
The Lexile Framework for Reading is the result of 12 years of research into reading comprehension by MetaMetrics Inc., an educational measurement and technology firm founded in 1984 in North Carolina by A. Jackson Stenner and Malbert Smith. Initially a nonprofit research firm begun under a $2-million National Institutes of Health grant, in recent years MetaMetrics has begun to transform itself into a for-profit firm marketing its Lexile Framework for Reading to publishers, school districts, librarians and educational testers.

Stenner told PW that the heart of the Lexile Framework for Reading is a software program called the Lexile Analyzer that can be used to analyze any text, be it a novel, textbook, newspaper or magazine, measure the text's syntactic complexity and assign it a numerical level called a Lexile rating. Most importantly, Stenner explained, the Lexile rating can also be calibrated with the scores of a variety of national standardized tests (such as the SAT) to determine a student's Lexile reading level.

Once both the text's and the student's Lexile rating have been determined, the firm claims, a reader matched with a text of the same Lexile level should be able to comprehend 75% of the reading material. Nevertheless, Stenner emphasized that the Lexile rating "is not a panacea" and that it d s not rate content, quality or developmental suitability. Stenner also emphasized that "we do not advocate editing texts [i.e., simplifying them] based on Lexile."

The company is positioning the Lexile rating to become "a global standard for literacy in English and in other languages." Some educators appear to agree with Stenner's claims and both Baker &Taylor and Ingram, quickly recognizing the potential for supplying school-adoption titles, have embraced the rating as a marketing tool. Both wholesalers have reached agreements to attach Lexile ratings to school-approved titles in their databases, and it appears that Lexile ratings may soon influence a state's decision to buy a trade title for a class project or to adopt a statewide textbook. So far school districts in North Carolina; California; Miami-Dade County; Boulder, Colo.; and Atlanta, Ga., representing a total of nearly 10 million children, have agreed to use Lexile-rated reading lists.

(Sample Lexile levels: 200L: The Cat in the Hat; 500L: Curious George; 1000L: Tom Sawyer; 1400L: PW and U.S. News and World Report.)

MetaMetrics' revenues come primarily from two sources: publishers pay a fee ($100 per title; $50 for series titles) to have their titles analyzed and rated, and the national standardized testing services also pay for the right to translate their scores.

Publishing Partners

Scholastic is an enthusiastic Lexile publishing partner, with more than 4000 of its titles having received Lexile ratings. Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement has linked its standardized testing services to the ratings service and MetaMetrics has contracts with seven or eight other publishers. Margery Mayer, executive v-p at Scholastic's instructional group, told PW that "teachers have been asking for a way to level texts and match beginning readers to the right text." She said the company approached MetaMetrics five years ago for a presentation on its service. Two years later Scholastic released several limited publishing projects to "test the waters. We had a big success." Mayer said that the educational group was driving Scholastic's use of Lexile, but, she told PW, "the trade book group here sees the potential. It's been a good investment for us. We're hoping that Lexile will be recognized as the standard."


Nevertheless, some reading professionals are skeptical. Betty Carter, associate professor of library science at Texas Women's University, who studies reading and has examined the Lexile Framework's claims, is critical, noting that the Lexile rating ignores "the internal qualities of the book," that Lexile choices are "mechanical" and that the service provides "a false sense of selection." Carter continued, "It's important to read all over the levels map. If we limit choices, we limit the chances of kids becoming lifetime readers."

A North Carolina educational administrator who has seen the MetaMetrics presentation told PW that "as a general tool, it's fine." But the educator also expressed a number of concerns. "It's a formula," the educator said, that represents an "overemphasis on quantification." The educator, a specialist in teaching beginning reading, worried that inexperienced teachers might use it reflexively and carelessly, and said, "I wouldn't use it; I know the levels of any books I would use." Still, the educator conceded that teachers of older kids, who need many more books, might be inclined to use it.

However, Frances Bradburn, section chief of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, called Lexile "another tool to link children to books and to help parents." She added quickly, "It's only one tool. It is not a magic bullet."Reaction from the publishing industry was mixed. A book distributor who declined to be named had doubts about encouraging publishers to label their titles: "We were concerned about kids being ridiculed for having a low Lexile rating and about MetaMetrics' research." She also had reservations about MetaMetrics' emphasis lists of specific titles "rather than what librarians think they need for their collections." She also noted that Lexile book lists "cut out small presses if they don't participate in Lexile ratings." Nevertheless, the distributor told PW, "If our customers decide they want it then we'll do it."

Reaction from publishers contacted by PW was mixed. "The pressure is on to use Lexile because Ingram has endorsed it," said one publisher who declined to be named. "Yet another panacea," the executive complained. "The cost is high. It's not worth it. We're not doing it." Kevin Jones, v-p marketing and sales development for BDD Books for Young Readers, told PW, "At some point we'll probably have to do it." However, he said, "MetaMetrics gave us a very impressive presentation," and he added that going after state adoptions is "the right strategy." Jones also noted that "the price [of having titles analyzed] was not a problem. You only do it once."
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