The Kids are Still All Right, Despite What Accelerated Reader Might Say

It’s that time of year again!  Renaissance Learning has released their annual nonsensical study and the media is gobbling it up and spitting out soundbites.  For the next few days we will read about how students are reading at lower levels, there is not enough rigor in English classes, and the world is going to hell in a handbasket as a result. It’s an annual frenzy that dies down after just a few days.  But somewhere out there, a school will purchase a reading program because of the furor around this issue and students will suffer as a result.

I wrote about this last year.  And I’ve written about my problems with AR before.

But seriously, can we stop pretending that the people behind Accelerated Reader don’t have an agenda? Can we stop acting like they are some impartial judge?  Come on, guys.  If Johnson and Johnson posted a study, performed in their lab, saying that Tylenol was the only medication that stopped headaches we would laugh.  Of course they say that, consumers would argue. They want to us to buy their product!

So why is it any different when Renaissance, a for-profit education company that reported $130 million in annual revenue in 2010, earned off the backs of students and teachers, says they have the answers to the reading woes of the world??

According to NPR, “For the fifth year in a row, the educational company used its Accelerated Reader program to track what kids are reading in grades one through 12.” This year’s controversy (centered around a small sample size)?  Students are reading books below their grade level.

Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level. The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.

Cue the moaning and weeping because students are reading The Hunger Games instead of Anna Karenina.

You know what?  I’m ok with that.  Classics are classics because they are a common, shared experience.  In most cases, that means they are being read in class and discussed.  I don’t know many teachers who use AR and allow their students to take the ridiculous tests and earn points for class reads.  AR is suposed to be used as a management tool for independent reading, not class reading.  Teachers design their own assessments for whole class novels.  Not to mention, I see classics on the list.  And my own students read plenty of classics alongside their contemporary novels.

So I’m not shocked that students are reading pleasure books for AR.  According to the study, “Renaissance Learning recognizes that not all book reading that happens in or outside of the classroom is captured through the Accelerated Reader software; however, it is reasonable to assume that for users of AR much book reading is captured in this way.”  What an assumption to make!  Let me tell you- in my experience that was not the case.  If it was the case, students told me they were not allowed to read any other books because their schools told them they could only read their selected AR reading level and would not allow them to borrow other books.

And that’s the key here.  The study only tracks books students log for Accelerated Reader, a program that schools pay for.  And a program that ties students to a single reading level for the year (or semester).  Pre-test and post-test.  Not a lot of movement in between.  Want to try a more complex book?  Sorry!  That’s above your reading level!

Accelerated Reader is a carrot-and-stick program, a rewards based one that allots points for every book a child reads (after they take a ridiculous, low-level comprehension quiz). Schools and teachers provide the quizzes, after purchasing them, and tell students what level they should be reading.  Books are then leveled according to AR’s readability test.

Schools tend to assign students to a band of points they must earn in order to succeed.  For example, a reader at level J might need to earn 35-40 AR points per marking period.  Students are responsible for finding AR-leveled books, either at school or at their library.  They then take the quiz and earn the points.  It doesn’t take long for students to realize that the easier, low-level point books help them finish this inane assignment faster.  And for many students, their options are limited to the books and tests readily available to them at school.  This means a district must purchase the texts and the sets of comprehension quizzes in a day and age when budgets are tight and orders are hard to come by.  I have  students who tell me that their middle school library stopped ordered new books before they arrived there thanks to budget cuts.  As a result, they were limited to the books on the shelves for their AR points.  Not a lot of room for choice.

But that’s not even the worst part.  The study mentioned above notes that students in high school are reading books well below their “AR level”.  Accelerated Reader levels each text using the ATOS readability formula, which scans vocabulary and sentence complexity to assign a grade level.  Themes and content are not taken into account.

I decided to take a look at some of the whole-class novels read in my school to see where they stack up.  I teach at the #1 STEM high school in the nation and my students are very, very gifted.  They aren’t all enthusiastic readers, but they test well and have the scores to prove it.  They attend Ivy League colleges and other top universities.  I’d say we do a pretty decent job of preparing them for college and the real world. So how does our reading stack up?

Antigone- 5th grade reading level

Romeo and Juliet- 8th grade reading level

Things Fall Apart- 6th grade reading level

Zeitoun- 6th grade reading level

I honestly laughed as I was pulling up these stats, directly from AR’s website.  Zeitoun is written at a 6th grade level? Antigone at a 5th grade level?  The themes and content are not appropriate for those students! But I guess it’s ok if the vocabulary and sentence construction are appropriate for 5th graders.

Look, to put in in STEM terms, the AR readability leveling is like saying, “Hey!  Calculus uses numbers and letters.  5th graders know how to count and can recite the alphabet.  Thus, they should just know how to solve a complex calculus problem!”

Ridiculous, right?

So why are we giving any weight to this study?  And it doesn’t even make any sense!  It bemoans students reading The Hunger Games because it’s rated at a 5th grade level and calls for them to read more Shakespeare and classics.  But then I pulled up classics, like Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and I had to laugh.  Reading level?  Fifth grade. The study decries the lack of rigor in student reading and calls for more classics, but then the lists of common 9-12 books show plenty of classics.  It’s clickbait and nothing more.  Get districts riled up and they will then turn to AR as a way to get kids reading.  Hmm, sounds like a great way to increase profits….

And while the complete report touches on the fact that language has been streamlined over the past 200 years, none of the articles mention that.  Many classics are ranked at high reading levels because language was complex when the books were written.  Sentences might be 50 words long!  Today, that’s wordy and discouraged.  And guess what?  Texts were more complex back then because education was only for the rich.  The harder it was to read and comprehend, the less of a chance that the  poor would have time to learn to read and then pick up those books.  The lower classes were needed to work in factories and in the fields.  They were not needed in classrooms. Times have changed, Renaissance, and that needs to be taken into account when you put together your study.

I am a voracious reader.  In the last month I have read adult best-sellers, YA, middle grade, and nonfiction.  I’ve read books that I’ve struggled with and books I’ve flown through.  Why should students be treated any differently?  Share reading experiences and books together, help them climb reading ladders.  Encourage teachers to be visible readers.  And lose the carrot-and-stick approach.  The millions of dollars being thrown at Renaissance Learning would buy a lot books for students to read.  Surround students with books, allow them to make reading choices, and read with them.  Encourage discussions, book talks, and debates instead of dioramas, worksheets, and AR quizzes.

I survey my students every year.  You know what they say encourages them to read, without fail? Book talks and talking to all of their teachers about books.  Not one student has ever said, “Man, I wish we had Accelerated Reader”.  And that tells me everything I need to know.


What Kids Are Reading, 2012 – Why It Doesn’t Matter

I’ve been stewing over this study for a few weeks now.  Back when it started making the rounds on Twitter I was busy finishing up my National Board portfolio and I only had time to skim the study and make a few passing remarks to my PLN.  But today I was able to sit down and read it cover-to-cover. Boy, do I have a lot to say.

Anyone who has been reading my blog since the beginning knows how I feel about Accelerated Reader.  When I taught sixth grade I worked very hard to grow my students into readers.  Inevitably, though, they moved on to the local middle school, which utilized AR, and their growth stopped.  I documented a specific example back in 2009.  I know every school is different and that my experience does not represent all experiences but I fear that student’s experience is all too common.

Needless to say, Renaissance Learning’s annual study gets me all riled up.  I am going to focus on the 9-12 list here, but I imagine that the statistics would ring true regardless of grade level.  According to Renaissance Learning, the 9-12 list represents “388,963 ninth–twelfth graders … during the 2010–11 school year.”  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “In fall 2011, over 49.4 million students will attend public elementary and secondary schools. Of these…14.5 million will be in grades 9 through 12 (source) . An additional 6.0 million students are expected to attend private schools (source).”  In other words, if I am doing my math correctly, the study represents the Top 40 reading choices made by 2.8% of secondary students in the United States.  That’s a pretty small sample size.  The study doesn’t mention this, but anecdotally I know that many secondary schools utilize AR for below-grade level readers who are placed into ‘enrichment’ reading classes in order to increase their reading instruction. AR is a one-and-done curriculum solution in that you just need a proctor to watch the students read and take quizzes.  In these times of budget crises across the country, it’s a simple solution for too many schools.  So the sample most likely includes a large number of below-grade level readers to begin with.

Also speaking anecdotally, many of my former students readily admit to choosing the easiest books from the AR list for a variety of reasons.  For those who enjoy reading, the easy books are fast reads that let them get their AR requirement over and done with quickly.  And many students will tell you that they read easy books because the AR quizzes are so ridiculously hard to pass.  Easy books hopefully means quizzes that the students can pass.  It’s been a  few years since  I’ve had the opportunity to see an AR test, but those I did see were nothing but rote memorization.  Basic recall questions about setting and minor characters don’t prove that a student can read critically or think critically. I remember a conversation on Twitter last year where various YA authors were wondering if they would be able to pass their own AR quizzes- for the books they wrote!

I have no idea why the lists are broken down into individual grade levels for K-8 but 9-12 are lumped together- that’s not consistent and affects the overall list.  But I’m going to work with what I have and just look at the overall list of popular books for grades 9-12.

The most popular book is The Hunger Games.  Is anyone surprised by this? It’s a gateway book for thousands of readers!  I know elementary school students, middle school students, high school students, and adults who have started reading again because Collins’ book pulled them into the vortex.  I have no issue with this being the most popular book for secondary students.  The themes are worthy and there is a lot to talk about.  Catching Fire is also found in the top ten, followed by Mockingjay.

The next three books are curriculum books.  Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Night, Animal Farm- would anyone argue that our students shouldn’t read these books?  My guess is these books are required reading in many schools and they count towards AR points, so the majority of the surveyed students read them.  Plus, three  of four are under 120 pages.  My guess? They are offered as part of a list and lots of kids pick the shortest books.  However, all three books are extraordinarily important books!  While their readability might be 4th/5th grade according to Renaissance Learning, I think there is a lot more to reading level than running text through an algorithm. Would I hand Night to a fourth grader?  Most likely no!  The themes and ideas are well above an elementary school reading level.  The same goes for the allegorical tale in Animal Farm. I read it as a 3rd grader because I read at a high school level and a teacher thought I should read books appropriate for my reading level.  You know what I got out of it at eight years old? A weird story about farm animals.  I didn’t have the background knowledge to fully understand the book!  I needed to grow up before the book would be important to me.  And guess what? If I reread Animal Farm today I would have a different interpretation than I did as a college student.  We grow and change and books grow and change with us, regardless of their text readability.

There are also a bunch of Nicholas Sparks’ books in the top 40.  Hmm, Sparks also makes many appearances on the NYT Best Seller list.  I have no issue with that.  Many adults read Nicholas Sparks so why should we fault high schoolers for picking up those same books?  Is he a fantastic writer? No sir. But does he get kids reading? Hell yes!

I have a big problem with the readability scores given to many of the classics on the list and that’s where the problem lies. Romeo and Juliet is listed as an 8.6 reading level and I think that explains why many of my gifted and talented students read it as a whole-class book in middle school.  Inevitably, they read it for 5 months, fill out countless worksheets, and still consider it a love story.  I teach the play in ninth grade and the number of students who read it in 6th grade astounds me.  Just because they are reading at a high school reading level doesn’t mean they can or should identify with R+J as eleven year olds!

You know what I would like to see?  The readability scores of the books that experts think HS students should be reading.  Last time I checked, lots of experts were decrying the lack of classics put into the hands of secondary students.  Classics were going to save us!  Only classics were worth reading!  Well, according to this list plenty of students are reading classics. But now the classics aren’t good enough because their readability school is too low.  So then what is the answer? How about we let students read what they want to read independently and as teachers, we push them to a higher level in class.  Get to know your students as readers. They like The Hunger Games? Awesome!  Hand them other books with similar themes. How about The Road by Cormac McCarthy? Oh wait- the ATOS readability is just 4.0 for McCarthy’s National Book Award winner.   Or 1984?  Ok, the ATOS for that one is 8.9  Phew!  I guess that one is ok for kids to read.

Here’s the problem as I see it- nonfiction rates as more complex than fiction.  That makes sense to me.  (Check out for the ATOS levels of various books. Once you get into upper grade books, the majority of offerings are primary source documents and books from history.  Very little science, almost no literature, a smidgen of math-related books).

Here’s the deal- NF books are expensive. Librarians have little money nowadays and they stretch what they do have. They order the books that get them the most bang for their buck and that means getting kids into the library and getting teachers to use the books.  That doesn’t leave a lot of money for lots of new NF. And publishers are part of the problem, too. My students (boys especially) crave NF. But there isn’t a lot of secondary level NF that isn’t a textbook.  Someone get on that!

We do need to have students read more NF in school and increase the complexity of what they read.  I fully support this, which is why I support the Common Core Standards in theory (I worry about how they will be put into practice, though).  I love that the CCS ask content area teachers to include more reading and writing. Students should be reading primary texts in history. They should learn to read articles from scientific journals in science. I love having my students read the NYTimes in humanities. But do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Absolutely not!

Humanity craves stories. We need stories. And stories are frequently fiction.  Our students can and should read YA, middle grade, adult books- whatever interests them. And we should take them by the hand in school and move them into more complex texts across the content areas.  Many adults read the newspaper daily and read novels, too. Why can’t we trust our students to do the same?

My students read Chaucer and Shakespeare in class.  We read Achebe and Adichie, Golding and Sophocles.  But you know what? My students also read Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Paul Volponi, Matthew Quick, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Sarah Dessen. They gain a lot from those experiences, too.

Renaissance Learning is a corporation. They need students and they need school districts.  More importantly, they don’t make money if students are reading independently in classrooms like those belonging to Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Paul Hankins, or Nancie Atwell.  They make money  when students must be forced to read and when they don’t read well. Why are we swallowing their study hook, line, and sinker?

Success! (Follow-up to AR Frustrations)

Well, after venting about AR, I downloaded the list of AR tests our middle school owns.  I then went through the entire list, marking books that I thought would appeal to my former student.  I came up with a list of 10 or so books, each one worth at least 10 points.  I typed up recommendations and sent the email to my student (with crossed fingers!).  

She just emailed me back.  It was a success!  First of all, she can’t wait to read Wintergirls once she is done with her AR points. But in order to earn her 30 AR points, she will be reading Catherine, Called Birdy and Locked in Time. I just opened this email, which made me smile. 🙂

great choices! catherine called birdy im going to try and read along with locked in time! both books sound ahhhmazing!  thxs sooo much!

Crisis averted!  Plus a non-AR recommendation for later.  🙂

Accelerated Reader Frustrations

The middle school in my district uses Accelerated Reader.  Students are leveled and each level is responsible for attaining a specific number of points each marking period.  For example, Level A students might be responsible for 50 points, Level B for 35 points, and Level C for 15 points.  The district seems to own a select number of tests (and I’m sure it’s a large amount…’s just not every single test available ) and the students must choose their books based on the tests which are available, in order to receive the points they need.  Every so often I get an email from a former student asking for book recommendations, but each one ends with the same plea- “It has to be an AR book!”

This past week, I received one of these emails from a student.  At the beginning of last year, she was one of my most reluctant readers.  By the end of the school year, she was one of my most enthusiastic readers.  She loves Laurie Halse Anderson, Margaret Peterson Haddix, and Melissa Morgan.  She left school with big reading plans for summer vacation and I couldn’t have been prouder.  Last week she sent me an email asking for some recommendations.  I immediately recommended Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Every Soul A Star by Wendy Mass, and Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall by Wendy Mass.  I was thrilled when she emailed me back this weekend…..until I read the email.

the first book [Wintergirls] sounds ammmazing..there’s just one problem! it’s soo new its not an AR book and i only have 5 points and need 30! right now im reading daniels story..and i wanna read a child called it but, its not an ar book.

ARG!  I don’t even know how to respond to her!  She would LOVE Wintergirls. I know she would.  But it’s not an “AR book”.  So instead of reading the books she wants to read and is dying to read, she is forced to choose books off of a preconstructed list.  I am frustrated beyond belief.  How is this helping our kids become readers?  It only makes reading more of a “school mandated” activity that reaches into their independent reading.  My former student told me she doesn’t think she will be able to read any of the books I recommended until the summer, because she has to read her AR books.  And she has only enjoyed one book from the AR list this year.  It’s the most frustrating thing this Language Arts teacher has heard in a long time.

I am sure AR works great for some kids.  And I’m sure it gets some kids who never, ever read to pick up a book- because they are forced to.  But it is not creating readers.  And in some cases, it’s destroying the readers that I worked so hard to create.  With the money that is spent on programs like AR, the US could be funding classroom libraries for teachers, filled with new books and classics alike.  We could train teachers in reading workshop.  We could help create a generation of readers!  And the fact that we are losing this opportunity is heartbreaking.

Right now, I am reading an ARC of Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (review coming soon)  If we could give every Reading, English, and Language Arts teacher a copy of her book, we could do more for our kids than any canned program ever will.  When will our Department of Education realize this?!

*Follow-up post found here.