OPINION: If you give a student a Lexile

Chances are, they won’t be tested accurately.

Novels are complex, synthesized pieces of text. There is no way a number can label an amalgamation of ideas that may have taken years to create. The school system, however, thinks otherwise.

A Lexile measure is assigned to a student after their completion of the Scholastic Reading Inventory test. Texts across the world are measured with the same scale, and students can choose novels that suit their determined reading level.

The SRI assessment itself has many flaws, creating an inaccurate scale in which texts are measured.

Before the test even begins, users pick three topics of interest, such as “comedy” or “historical non-fiction.” The assessment is vocabulary-based, meaning test-takers read passages and answer questions about the vocabulary words used. Passages classified under the category of “comedy” use words and phrases much easier than those under “historical non-fiction.” Since the vocabulary dictates the score, those who chose easier topics may receive easier words to decipher, giving them a higher Lexile score that doesn’t reflect their actual ability.

Understanding and deep-thinking is a crucial part of reading. The SRI contains no questions about the actual topics readers  are reading or how they interpret the topics.

“It’s the longer the sentences, the higher the Lexile level, and … the bigger the words, the higher the Lexile,” English Department Chair Andrew Waddell said. “But it doesn’t test at all the complexity of the idea.”

Students with high Lexile scores can have trouble understanding what they read despite knowing the meaning of every word on the page. Similarly, a book with a lower Lexile score can have intense themes and situations younger readers would not understand despite the easy vocabulary.

For example, “The Grapes of Wrath,” a classic novel traditionally taught to juniors, has a Lexile score of 680, about the average level for a third grader. A novel taught in AP Literature at SCHS, “The Stranger,” has approximately a sixth grade Lexile level, according to Waddell, despite the novel’s difficulty.

“The sentences are short, the words are simple, but it’s very complex to figure it out,” Waddell said. “It’s an example of where the Lexile level doesn’t tell the story.”

While knowing words is needed to understand themes, the SRI never addresses comprehension. The assessment lays the foundation of deep understanding without actually testing for it.

“It’s all vocabulary in context,” Waddell said. “If you actually literally know the word already, it’s a huge advantage.”

Proponents of the SRI may have a point: The SRI test does, in fact, increase students’ vocabulary. Students must decipher the meaning of words in the context of a passage. Although deep understanding is not taught, vocabulary and context clues are. Without those, comprehension would not be possible. The SRI test is an adequate test for surface-level reading, such as early elementary school. Combined with another, deeper exam, the SRI could allow teachers to accurately assess the reading and comprehension skills of their students in all grade levels.

While vocabulary is important in reading, it is not the main aspect. The SRI test omits this, and as a result, the outcome is an entire system of scores pairing students with texts not necessarily suited for them.