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.
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!”
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.