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Accelerated Reader- Four questions for administrators

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As school districts everywhere brace for yet another round of budget cuts, I have a question: Why not attendance7drop the annual online testing fee to Accelerated Reader? This question has been on my mind  ever since NCTE colleague and mentor Allen Webb shared his observation that “school districts tend to value programs they have to pay for – regardless of the actual value or impact of those programs.”

I fully support the first two components and possibilities of the AR program:

  • provide students with a rich library of books, from beginning to advanced reading levels, thereby making a wide range of topics accessible to all readers.
  • provide students with regular chunks (at least 15 minutes) of sustained silent reading (SSR) time.
  • It’s the third component – test the heck out of students with online multiple-choice tests – that I find troubling. As to the fourth component – provide students with prizes – I think researchers such as Alfie Kohn have already made a compelling case against reading incentive programs.

    I understand that change is hard, especially if it involves giving up programs sites are currently paying for. But given the realities of the  budget crisis, I think it reasonable for an administrator to consider the following questions before renewing the annual AR subscription:

    #1 Have you checked into the research on AR? No, I don’t mean the research the Renaissance Learning folks post about their own products.  I’m talking about research such as the above paper by Alfie Kohn, or recent findings by Stephen Krashen, who has generously shared his insights on the English Companion Ning:

    Accelerated Reader (AR) may be “the most influential reading program in the country” (“If you’re shopping, find the books that work for kids,” December 17) but there is no clear evidence that it works. It fact, it might be harmful.

    AR has four components: It makes sure children have access to books, provides time to read, quizzes children on what they read with a focus on details, and awards prizes for performance on the quizzes.

    It is well-established that providing books and time to read are effective, but AR research does not show that the quizzes and prizes are helpful. Studies claiming AR is effective compare AR to doing nothing; gains were probably due to the reading, not the tests and prizes.

    AR encourages an unnatural form of reading, reading focusing on often irrelevant details in order to pass tests.

    AR rewards children for doing something that is already pleasant: self-selected reading. Substantial research shows that rewarding an intrinsically pleasant activity sends the message that the activity is not pleasant, and that nobody would do it without a bribe. AR might be convincing children that reading is not pleasant. No studies have been done to see if this is true.”

    #2. Have you polled your parent community on their opinions about AR? NCTE collegue (and former district colleague) Teresa Bunner recently shared her perspective (which is very close to a scene and conversation I witnessed last year at my county library):

    As a mom it often irked me to no end to watch a big deal be made at awards assemblies for earning so many points on AR when I knew my kids read all the time, just not AR books or not short easy read books that earned them points quickly! … Truly, truly when we take time to match kids with the right books, they enjoy reading. I believe that having taught elementary, middle and high school.”

    #3. Have you started a conversation with your veteran teachers on their views on AR? About a year ago, I first blogged my AR concerns. I’d like to re-post comments by two educators/bloggers whose opinions I very much value:

    From Mathew Needleman:

    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?”

    From Cathy Nelson:

    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.)”

    #4. What are you students saying about AR? A teacher in my district recently shared with me that one of her 4th graders brags about being able to pass an AR quiz just by reading the write-up  on the book jacket. Hmmmm…..In taking a closer look at the winning entries in our district’s No Excuses…Go to School poster contest, I’m thinking  this winning entry by a middle school student provides a window into the student perspective. I wish I could see the title of the book the student is gripping as he hops the fence to skip school.  What do you bet it’s not on the AR list AND it’s got “the flow” going for this escaping student.

    I’m sure there’s a 5th question administrators should be asking of AR.  If you think of one, please post a comment.

    6 Comments

    1. Gail-
      Thanks for tackling this important issue. Another question administrators might ask is “If we spent the same amount of money we do on the AR program on beefing up school/classroom libraries, would we get the same results?”
      I argue the answer to that would be “Yes” and I would even go as far to say the results would be greater.

      Thanks for allowing my parent voice to be heard. But I also come at this topic as a teacher. When I entered the alternative high school where I work this year, there was no library and reading was not a part of the daily routine. Through a lot of community help, we have built a library of over 300 titles for about 20-30 kids. When I shop for books, I shop with my students in mind. And, in fact, they have started generating lists of books for me:)! When you walk in, you will find students engaged in reading at the start of every day.

      Last week several of my kids had to take the end of course (EOC) state test.I was a little nervous as I took the radical route of having them read and write every day versus using multiple choice reading tests or test prep. The test is a little higher stakes here in NC than the tests in CA. You don’t pass the EOC, you don’t pass the class. Guess what? They passed! Why did they pass? Because they are readers adn writers now. These are kids who are labelled “Unmotivated” and they tell me when they enter ‘I don’t read!”Yet ,the 15 enrolled in English have read over 45 books in the first semester. And there were no AR tests and I didn’t give them prizes. Their prize came in the form of success on the test they needed to pass. I couldn’t have given them any better prize than that.

      • Thanks for sharing your insights, Teresa. I’m betting if you had had a control group confined to AR, your kids who traveled your “radical route” would have out performed your AR group.

        Do you have your (their) wish list for books posted somewhere?

    2. When my daughter, who is now in high school, was in elementary school, she was introduced to the AR program. Since she was already an avid reader, she never paid much attention to the tests or the site – until 4th grade. That was the year her teacher turned the site into a contest. Children competed to read the most minutes, pass the most tests, score the highest. My daughter, who loved to read, refused to read any book that was not an AR book. That left off some fabulous new books. She no longer cared to read the same books as me and discuss them. She often chose lower level books just so she could read more of them. When I approached her teacher about how much this program was turning her off reading, he stated that it worked for non-readers. I was dismayed that he couldn’t find a better way to motivate the non-readers. And was very glad that her fifth grade teacher did not push AR.

      • Thanks for sharing your parent perspective, Lisa. I just find it surprising that schools continue to pay for the online testing when the $ could be better spent, for instance, on “beefing up school/classroom libraries” (as Teresa suggested in her comment).

    3. It does not say how to hack ar.

    4. Sorry unnecessary.

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