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Accelerated Reader – Time to Say “No”?

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Let me start this rant with a positive example of how the Accelerated Reading Program is used at some school sites. I’m thinking of the 5th grade teacher who is starting a unit on the American Revolution and is seeking historical fiction and biographies to supplement the history textbook.  The school librarian has used AR’s leveling and labeling system to make it easy for the teacher to provide his/her students with books that match a wide range of reading abilities.  If this is how AR is being used at your site, then I think the expense and time commitment is certainly justifiable.

I fear the above use is not the norm though, and the more common practice is that students take AR quizzes in a computer lab…where they receive no feedback on their answers.  I think Robert Marzano’s research makes visible the harm in using technology solely for assessment rather than as a teaching/learning tool:

I grabbed this screen shot from Marzano’s CUE 2009 keynote address (http://cuecast.blip.tv/#192464), which I highly recommend watching.

In my district, many of our elementary sites are paying for the pricey web-based version of the quizzes. For the most part, I’ve kept silent on the value of the program, since so many teachers seem to like it.  Several years ago, I heard Cheryl Lemke share research from the Metiri Group’s research on AR. Their findings were that AR was “a wash” – some students would improve their reading; others would show a decrease in reading scores.  Following Lemke’s presentation, I sent out an inquiry to the NCTE‘s Talkies group.  NCTE friend and mentor Nancy Patterson shared that “cheating was a major issue” and what the research really showed was “buy the books, not the tests.” A quick Google search on Stephen Krashen +Accelerated Reader brought up a white paper entitled Does Accelerated Reader Work? Here are the findings in a nutshell:

The results presented here strongly suggest that of the four aspects of AR, access to books, time devoted to reading, tests, and rewards, only the first two are supported by research. There is considerable evidence that providing access to books results in more reading and better reading and considerable evidence that providing time to read results in better reading. There is suggestive evidence that incentives do not promote additional reading in the long term. The AR research literature does nothing to change these conclusions.”

What set off this rant? A computer lab teacher at one of my EETT sites asked if it would be OK to load AR onto the laptops in the wireless cart that had just arrived for the 4th grade teachers.  I replied to her with a copy to the principal that I was OK with it as long as the taking of AR quizzes did not replace the blogging and in2books reading and writing that the students were beginning to engage in.  Since the goal of the grant is to improve literacy skills, especially writing, I felt the need to make clear that AR would not improve student writing skills.  I had a sudden nightmarish vision of the $20,000 COW becoming a vehicle for mindless time spent testing, via multiple choice, recall – with no time left for connecting, creating, collaborating, sharing, or any kind of higher-order thinking.  The principal responded that he doubted that would be the case with these teachers.  And from what I have seen during classroom visits, the laptops are indeed being used to promote 21st century literacies (by a 4th grade team that is for the most part new to technology – but extremely dedicated, talented and open to new ideas).

Because so many sites seem committed to the AR program (and expense), I’m hoping readers might have more and better examples of how AR is worth the time and expense. I’m all for the increased access to books; it’s just the testing part I question.  Am I missing something?

14 Comments

  1. I believe the AR program has tremendous value as a classroom tool. Although it is not a replacement for any kind of classroom teaching, I believe it has several benefits when used properly.
    First, it is a useful tool for differentiation. In the online instructions for AR, it tells teachers to find the student’s ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) range, so that students are reading books on which they can capably score 85% or above. I believe that giving students this ability to choose from books that they can comfortably read gives them the courage and confidence to continue reading. I have seen many students progress from a second grade level book into fourth grade level books by the end of the year. Students who have spent much time reading and taking quizzes have also demonstrated an increase in their reading fluency. The more fluently they read, the more interested they become in reading. Granted, this is all anecdotal evidence from my own classroom, but it has been powerful enough for me to make AR an important tool in my classroom. It is important to recognize that students who are allowed to read from lower levels may need to have a point goal that is less than the standard classroom goal.
    Second, students have to do their reading at home, and I know they are doing it based on the increase in their points. I used to have a reading log that parents would sign nightly or weekly. Too often, parents were signing these without really knowing if their children read. I do not have the time to individually and orally quiz students. I also felt frustration with reading summaries that I tried assigning. AR provides a quick check for me to know whether students are reading, and how carefully they are reading.
    Third, AR provides immediate feedback. Students know what questions they answered incorrectly, and can then review the questions they missed to see the correct answers. We also have conversations about the importance of scoring 85% or higher. Students must think about their understanding of the book. Students who score low on a quiz must conference with me to discuss what the potential problems were and how they can be corrected. It is during these quick conferences that we discuss comprehension strategies, such as whether they need to slow down their reading, monitor their comprehension, or take the time to summarize after every few pages/chapters/etc.
    Finally, these comprehension quizzes prepare students for the reality of standardized testing. They are practicing reading the various answers and choosing the best of the four. Although any teacher should realize that these questions will not prepare them for every test question, it does prepare them for some of the basic comprehension questions that are on the STAR testing.
    As with any program, teachers should be monitoring and using the tool to improve learning. I believe that by providing my students with a wide array of books in their various reading levels (both in the classroom and in the library), discussing their quiz results, and identifying areas of growth is an important facet in their comprehension growth. They are using their metacognitive skills to identify their own areas of need, and choosing books accordingly. Used with guidance and flexibility, I think that the 10-15 minutes per week that students spend on their AR quizzes is a powerful time of growth and assessment. I would hope that no teacher relies on AR completely to teach and monitor comprehension, but just as we use STAR assessments, fluency scores, and anecdotal assessment, it is another useful piece of the puzzle.

    • Thanks, Tara, for a very comprehensive comment. I suspect a key reason you are seeing growth via AR testing is that you are “monitoring and using the tool to improve learning” – which according to Marzano’s chart yields a substantial gain in learning – and would certainly justify the substantial cost of the program.

    • I also recommend to anyone following this discussion that they hope over to your blog and read http://dramaqueenteacher.blogspot.com/2009/03/exercising-mind.html, in which you’ve raised some very good points.

      I took my first AR test on Dear Mr. Henshaw – with a group of 5th graders watching over my shoulder as I tried to decide the right answer to a question on what Leigh Botts would have done with a cash prize of $500. The class discussion was pretty interesting, with students talking about what AR would consider the ‘right answer,’ as opposed to what they thought should be the right answer. That experience made me wonder how many rich discussions were not happening as a result of students taking tests in isolation. But again, if a teacher is monitoring student answers, then the rich discussions could still happen.

      • Yes, AR is not perfect. We’ve debated answers on STAR tests too – I think it is an inherent danger in multiple choice testing of any sort. I would really like AR to have some kind of functionality where we could do more error analysis. Is the student and/or class having issues with main idea & details, or inferences, or some other skill? One little known functionality of AR is that you can assign points for outside assignments – so teachers can also give credit for alternative assignments in lieu of taking tests. That is how I’m giving students AR credit for In2Books – so that they don’t have to worry about In2Books taking away from their AR reading time.

        • I would wager that the improvement in reading seen is not from “students reading and taking tests,” but rather just from reading. The more practice one has at something, the better they get, and testing (even a computerized commercial program) has nothing to do with it. Do you really want to give credit to a program for the hard work you have done in getting kids to read? Credit goes to the teacher, not the tool. AR is as good as the one who implements it–not the tool itself. Let’s not inflate the egos of Renaissance Learning anymore than they are already inflated. This is a tool and nothing more. Success is based solely on the implementation (by the teacher.)

        • Cathy,
          Your comment brings to mind a conversation I had with Professor Michael Webb during last November’s NCTE Conference. He shared his observation that “districts tend to value only those program they pay for.” More and more, I see evidence that he’s right.

  2. We have used AR for a number of years, but we are the only group on campus using it, and there have been no new tests purchased for a few years so the kids read all the books they want, take the tests, and there aren’t tests for the new books they are reading. It’s lost its value due to that drawback. If the whole school had used it as it was intended, then it would have been valuable, but not now.

  3. We had a similar but differently named program at my last school and I absolutely share your concerns. The program we had took over the computer. In other words, teachers would use that computer exclusively to run (insert program name here). In addition to leaving behind advances in computing/technology of the past decade, I too felt that the quizzes really weren’t getting to higher level thinking and were essentially replacing the SRA kits we used when I was in elementary school. If we can do it with paper and pencil, why use the expense and electricity to do it on a computer?

    • Thanks, Mathew. Unless teachers are monitoring and providing feedback to students (see Tara’s comment), then I have to question the cost.

      I remember when my son came home from 1st grade one day absolutely an ardent fan of author Judith Viorst. What caused this sudden engagement with reading? The PTA had invested a little money to have a well-known author visit the school. From my perspective, that was an example of money well spent to promote a love of reading. I’m pretty sure the annual cost of AR could fund several author visits a year;-)

  4. Along with what Tara commented on about the ZPD that should be closely monitored by the student’s teacher, the TOPS report of each quiz should be printed.

    “TOPS” stands for Three Opportunities to Praise a Student. Students taking an AR quiz have up to three opportunities to be praised for a job well done.
    1. By the person helping administer the quiz. This can be a volunteer or older student who helps young readers as they begin with AR. In upper elementary grades it could be a reading buddy who does not watch as the quiz is taken, but praises (or discusses) the printout.
    2. By the classroom teacher
    3. By the parent

    Many schools/teachers turn off the printer attached to the computer where students take quizzes because of the cost of paper and toner. TOPS is an integral part of the AR program just like setting ZPD’s, but often is not properly used by the classroom teachers.

    AR is a wonderful program when it is used the way it was designed to be used. The problem is not in the program but how it is being used, or should I say misused by many time-strapped educators who have not gone through the training on how to properly use AR in their classrooms. Money needs to be spent not only on the program, but on professional development for the teachers who are going to implement it.

  5. Paula, thank you for for your input and for pointing out the TOPS report, which could certainly have the positive impact Robert Marzano mentions in the example he gives about the feedback his wife may or may not provide about his choice of ties (if you click on the link to the video, you’ll hear what I’m talking about). Looking at the stats in the slide, there is a substantial difference in not only providing the correct answer, but also in explaining why it’s the correct one. The dramatic improvement in student achievement from a -3 loss to a +20 gain would certainly justify the cost of paper and toner.

    You’ve also nailed the time issue that teachers deal with. I’ll add to that that in today’s tough economy, many teachers are paying for the paper and toner out of their own pockets. I think if administrators saw the difference between students taking the tests with no opportunity for feedback as opposed to what you and Tara offer, they would find the money to cover the cost of printing.

    I appreciate your comment – and also the discovery of your blog. What a lot of great things you are doing with your 4th graders!

    Gail (who used to live in New Orleans and whose elementary credential is through Tulane University:-))

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