Wednesday, June 12, 2013

You Lost Me at Accelerated Reader, NPR

Social networking sites and the blogosphere have been sparking with fury over an NPR News article questioning "What the Kids Are Reading in School and Out."  Over on The Reading Zone, Sarah has penned an eloquent response to the NPR article: "The Kids Are Still All Right, Despite What Accelerated Reader Might Say."

I have some additional thoughts:

Reading the line "research shows that as young readers get older, they are not moving to more complex books" reminds me of Mark Twain's warning about research: "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics." 

We should heed Twain's sage and classic words when considering any claims and "research" from Renaissance Learning, a for-profit businesses and the company who has plagued many schools and young readers with the dreadful Accelerated Reader program. 

As Sarah explains, many classics also have relatively low reading levels based on the formula RL uses. The company's goal is to sell a product, not produce life-long readers and lovers of books. 

For sure, Renaissance Learning marches to the beat of numbers. That's why they use metrics to determine reading level: count the words in a sentence to determine sentence complexity; count the vocabulary words to determine the complexity of diction. Count the number of books a kid reads based on the number of comprehension quizzes the student passes. Record all the numbers and boast. 

Then claim students don't read complex books after middle school. Clearly, RL wants to move AR into more high schools:

"Last year, we had more than 8.6 million students from across the country who read a total of 283 million books," says Eric Stickney, the educational research director for Renaissance Learning.

Follow the numbers: If RL can get 8.6 million students to read 283 million books, think what they can do for high school students poor reading habits--for a price. 

This reminds me of the Pardoner in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales: "I preach for nothing but greed of gain," says the Pardoner in his tale. 

My district uses Accelerated Reader. Not once have I heard a student proclaim: "I love AR. It really pushes me to be a better reader and to want to read." My own children detested AR, and as a parent and teacher, so do I. 

In fact, many students have told me that they hated AR and so have teachers who are forced to use the program. Say AR to the most passionate teachers using the program, and you're libel to get an ear full of ranting laced with expletives about how dreadful the program is to student reading progress. 

In its support of RL, the NPR article cites several novels students regularly read, but the tone suggests something sinister and wrong with assigning students these texts:

  • Of Mice and Men: What's wrong in this era of bullying with having students read a tale about friendship and accepting and cherishing those whose abilities differ from our own? 
  • To Kill a Mockingbird: What's wrong with continuing to assign this seminal work of literature that arguably is a cultural, shared icon? 
  • The Help: What's wrong with students reading about the treatment of African American women working for racist white women in the 1960's? 
  • The Kite Runner: What's wrong with students reading a heart-wrenching story about life in Afghanistan, a country in which we have been embroiled in a war for more than a decade? 
Then the article fallaciously claims that "in 1989 high school students were being assigned works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte and Edith Wharton," as though teachers never assign these writers in 2013. Nonsense. 

In my school, students read at least three Shakespeare plays in their English classes, and I teach Shakespearean sonnets in my basic speech classes when we study oral interpretation. Many of our ninth graders read Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol. I have taught Shaw's Pygmalion this century, and a couple of years ago we ordered additional copies of Wharton's Ethan Frome.  And I've only just scratched the surface with these titles.

In a press release last April, Renaissance Learning posed the question: "Boo Radley or Katness Everdeen: Who's Motivating Kids to Read?" I have an answer: It isn't Accelerated Reader or the CCSS, as the press release claims.

I suggest that Renaissance heed the wisdom of the writers it references in its study when thinking about what motivates kids to read:

  • Avi, author of Nothing But the Truth, said, “I believe there are two powerful ways to motivate young people. The first is that they see their own parents, guardians, and siblings reading…The second most powerful motivator is to read to young people.
  • Christy Levings, executive committee member, National Education Association, said, “Not unlike adults, [students] used recommendations from friends and classmates as a major source of finding new things to read.”
  • Doreen Cronin, author of Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type, said, “The books kids read largely depend on which part of the world is calling to them, confusing them, scaring them, or making them laugh.”
  • Donald Driver, author of Quickie Makes the Team, said, “Kids read what they read to have fun! No other activity invites kids to use their imagination quite like reading does.”
  • Dr. Roger Farr, chancellor’s professor emeritus at Indiana University, said, “High-interest books motivate students to read. When books that engage adolescent readers feature interesting topics…students will read.”
Not one writer or scholar calls for more AR in schools. Not one suggests districts purchase another reading program or follow-up free reading with a quiz. Reading to take a quiz isn't fun. Choosing a book based on a colored dot isn't the way to engage students in a book; instead, it's a way to make reading a chore. 

My reading recommendations to students have never been based on a for-profit reading program or the research from a company seeking to suck bucks from school districts while denigrating the role of teachers, and that's exactly the subtext of Renaissance Learning and its Accelerated Reader program. 

Rather than bemoaning the impact popular culture has on student reading choice as Stickney does by complaining about the spike in students reading that resulted from The Hunger Games movie, he should cheer. That's because what holds true for HG is also true for The Great Gatsby this year, Life of Pi this past winter, and Beowulf a few years ago. 

As I read the NPR article, I couldn't help but think about the many times Professor Robin Bates, author of How Beowulf Can Save America and writer of my favorite blog, "Better Living Through Beowulf," has invoked Alice in Wonderland, a children't story to make a political point. A quick search of the blog archive reveals no fewer than 19 posts linked to Lewis Carroll. 

I also thought about the reading choices my students (seniors) made this year. For book clubs at the end of the year, students chose from the following: Life of Pi, Frankenstein, MAUS I and II, and The Great Gatsby. Both Life of Pi and The Great Gatsby were very popular because of the movie tie-ins. All students completed their books. When I asked students what was different in determining whether or not they finished this assigned reading when many have so often admitted to "never having read a book since seventh grade," they responded, "We got to choose." 

An important point Penny Kittle makes in Book Love and that many others reiterate is that we can assign all the whole-class novels, classics and contemporary texts alike, but if kids don't read what we assign, then we accomplish nothing. 

When bleating about the reading choices students make and the books teachers assign, Renaissance Learning should heed Shakespeare. Angry with his mother, Hamlet  charges: "You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you" (III). Just as Hamlet saw the rat Polonious meddling behind the curtain, the rat I see is Renaissance Learning and its Accelerated Reader. 

My granddaughter Kayla, happily reading books of her choice. 
I received the following message via Facebook from a high school friend who has graciously given me permission to publish it here. Thanks, Tony, for these kind words and parental insights:

Read your article about AR. I enjoy your passion you display for your craft. I'm very fortunate my girls are very advanced readers and I don't think the AR program was the reason. I think reading to them as children ignited their desire for reading. I can't count how many times I've read hop on pop, and snug house, bug house. I think their should be a federal holiday for Dr. Seuss


  1. I, too, abhor AR. Their system encourages page numbers read... no thought, no complexity, no analysis. The perfect breeder of corporate drones.

  2. Hey look, I'm here commenting instead of just creeping over your blog. AR was implemented in my district when I was in 4th grade. The comprehension tests were beyond easy, the reading levels restricted what I could read (if it was higher or lower than their estimate, then you weren't allowed to read it), and took all the fun out of reading. I'm quite surprised that NPR would take such a positive view on something so contrary to true education.

    1. Thanks, Alesha. I was a bit surprised at how readily NPR accepted the RL rhetoric, too.

  3. I HATED Accelerated Reader when I was a kid. I was first exposed to it in third grade, but it wasn't strictly enforced yet. I could still check out whatever I wanted from the school library. I checked out mostly 6th grade level novels (though at home I was reading my parents' books, at an even higher reading level). I made a perfect score on every test.

    Skip to '98, when I was in fourth grade. They made us take a bogus test to assess our reading level. I was told I could only read books within an arbitrarily specific range—something like 3.45–4.07. Far below my actual reading level.

    I tried to continue checking out the books I WANTED to read, but the librarians scolded me. I was required to take a requisite number of AR tests within my given level, and only then could I be "bumped up" to a slightly higher level. And I'd also get some lame prize.

    The other kids, who weren't book lovers, ate this up. I guess it was a self esteem boost, because all they had to do was jump through a few hoops like a circus animal and then get a reward. I neglected to keep track of my AR points and get "bumped up," so my classmates would look at my AR chart and point out scornfully, "You should show this to the librarian. You're supposed to get bumped up."

    Meanwhile, my mom refused to take me to a public library because she was afraid of incurring late fees. So I was a gifted kid who loved to read and write novels in her spare time, yet was systematically blocked from reading engaging material by the very system that was supposed to encourage my learning.

    Skip to middle school. AR was entirely optional, and most people just ignored it. By that point I had read a lot of "big" books that were worth a lot of AR points. So in 8th grade, I took the AR test for all of those point-heavy books I'd read over the years. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a few of the Harry Potter books, the Anne of Green Gables series, Little Women... I racked up a ton of AR points in one go, ended up being of the top 10 AR "achievers" in the school, and got a free field trip to an amusement park out of it.

    Technically I cheated because I tested for books I hadn't read in the past year. But it felt so gratifying to cheat the system that held me back before. >:)

    1. You have so eloquently stated exactly what's wrong w/ AR. Thank you!

  4. We are currently implementing AR at our school and it is very stressful! So many details to think about that as a teacher I don't have the time to think about! I will continue to promote reading for the love of reading, and just play the game! I will comment though at leadership meetings about the expense that is being incurred because of this program. I'd rather they spend the $$ on more books than on this program. My own children love reading because I love reading. I never put much stock into AR or Reading Counts when they went to elementary school.