Sandra Stotsky, holder of the Twenty-First Century Chair in Teacher Quality in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, says American high school students do not read challenging books, whether they are assigned by their teachers or chosen for leisure reading.
The report is put out by the same company that sells the Accelerated Reader, more commonly known as AR in a school near you. Basically, AR is built for data. Books are rated and organized according to reading level and length and then quizzes are given to students after they read the books and awarded points based on how well they perform on the quizzes. The quizzes are all computerized thus facilitating the data driven instruction favored by the leaders in educational reform today.
Here is a great article by Gary Stager on the shortcomings of AR and how it drains schools of scarce resources while creating and exacerbating a problem that it is claiming to address. What I want to add to the conversation is first-hand experience with how AR, and its implementation has had a detrimental effect on reading in our household.
In my youngest son’s 4th grade classroom, he is assigned a sort of individualized reading goal of a certain number of points per month. Making this goal is a substantial part of his grade. The goal is fairly well-written, in that it is precise and can be efficiently measured, since AR is a like a dream for people who are data driven. Plus it can be individualized based on ability. You would think a behaviorist like me would love it.
My 4th grader has the dubious honor of being able to read on about the 6-7th grade level. So the grade level he is restricted to is at the 5-7th grade range. If he reads anything at too low a level, he doesn’t get enough points. If he reads to far above, he can’t comprehend enough to pass the AR test. So AR should be aiming at his sweet spot of about the 6th grade level. The problem is, is that my quest student has a goal that makes him read a book about every week. In 4th grade. On top of the rest of the homework he is being assigned. So right away, we are digging into his non-homework time at home, as the school day is extended 2-4 hours every afternoon and night.
But there is another problem with this AR system besides the bone-numbing reduction of reading into data points. It is also expensive and it creates additional and needless drain on resources while at the same time it decreases accessibility and options. The true limitations of AR didn’t really hit us until we decided to buy a Kindle Touch with our own scarce financial resources.
The idea was that eyes strain from staring at a computer screen for long periods for just reading might be alleviated by the more natural experience offered by the Kindle. And that we could have more access to more books, free books, using the Kindle. And indeed there are free classic books to be had. Most of them freely available through the Gutenberg Project. And they are classic literature, time tested and things that many of us might have read when we were kids and our kids might discover and are completely appropriate for school.
The first book I downloaded on our brand new kindle was a book called Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with the Circus. It has some pretty heavy themes but there is no bad language and there is a less on to be learned. The book is slightly on the low side for my 10 year-old at about a 4-5th grade level. But I thought he might enjoy it. But he will probably never read it because if you search the AR book finder, it is not there. And neither are several free and classic works of children’s literature. Basically, we are totally limited to those books that have tests because he has only a limited amount of time and he has high expectations for himself and will push himself to reach certain goals including getting straight A’s. So AR books, and his grade, have a much higher priority than reading for enjoyment. It is NOT enjoyable to read for him, it is a CHORE.
His less conscientious classmates choose books from the AR list, but compare that list to the Netflix/movie list in order to “finish” a Harry Potter book in about 2 hours. They basically game the system as much as possible.
Let’s talk a a bit about the less motivated brother who just turned 13. He likes to read, but his interests are so restricted that they hardly even appear on any AR list at any reading level. Titanic, trains, and….that is about it at the moment although we are gradually working on expanding the list. For awhile he was interested in entrepreneurship and read books about the founding of Coca cola and McDonald’s which I think I enjoyed reading more than he did. But those were each only worth one point despite being on a 7th grade reading level just because they were relatively short. Getting him through a novel is a LOT of work. We had to work overtime to get him through the book Where the Red Fern Grows which included having him watch the movie more than once. And he has developed a fixation toward getting coon dogs now. This is a fine story, but it was SO hard getting him to read the book. But we also didn’t want to add the expense of an audio book on top of the book and the movie we bought.
One thing about the free classic works of literature, is that they are available in audio as well as free electronic book form though Librivox. So now a person can listen with their Kindle Touch while they read along. Every book can be made into a read-along-book. And it is free. And these are challenging books. these would be a much better choice for both of my kids because they are presented in multiple formats and widely accessible. Being in the public domain also opens up all sorts of possibilities for manipulating these stories and putting on plays, doing illustrations and basically having fun without the worry of copyright and cost restrictions. This would be leveraging technology properly, although it does not lend itself especially well to the data driven approach favored by the education czars of both Bush and Obama administrations. And I see nothing that convinces me a new president will make any positive changes.
AR is an expensive program that limits and saddles a school with only certain books that happen to have quizzes in them. The entire idea of reading as an enjoyable endeavor is abandoned in favor of turning both my kids into data points. It is not cost effective to limit its use to only those students who might benefit from the point system, so everyone has to use it.
I happened to witness another casualty of the AR system. It encourages cheating, which turns the poor librarian into a sort of guard who has to make sure that kids are not looking over another’s shoulder and getting answers. I saw this while substituting in a 4th grade classroom. The lone librarian (she had no aid as those positions had been long cut) was exasperated with trying to monitor my class, the AR test takers plus check out books and organize the huge stacks behind her. I’m sure when she entered the field she many idea of how she might promote literacy and a love of reading to children everywhere. I have yet to meet one that had anything good to say about AR.