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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 12/15/2009

A major reading program that gives more points to 'Breaking Dawn' than 'The Grapes of Wrath'

By Valerie Strauss

Play along with me for a minute.

On one hand you have the book “Breaking Dawn,” the fourth book in the “Twilight Saga” by Stephenie Meyer. On the other, you have John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath.”

If you were going to assign points to each work--points that students would amass by reading each one and then passing a quiz on it--which book would get the most?

I’m guessing that most of you (myself included) would put Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning stunner on top.

But that’s not what the Accelerated Reader program does--and, to me, this is a problem, especially given that AR is the largest web-based supplemental reading program in American public schools today.

AR gives “Breaking Dawn” (about a human girl who becomes a vampire) 28 points, and “The Grapes of Wrath,” 25 points. For that matter, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” gets more points (23) than Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” (15).

I confess I feel slightly churlish for criticizing a program that gets kids to read--and read they seem to do. (You can check out the books and points here.)

Accelerated Reader by Renaissance Learning Inc., is in 15,000 schools across the United States, more than 2,500 schools in Great Britain and is growing here and around the world all the time. According to the company, in the 2008-09 school year, more than 4.6 million U.S. students read more than 141 million books.

And I do not intend to suggest that I think kids should always be reading classics; in fact, I think more young people would do a lot more reading if we gave them more leeway to choose what they wanted to read.

But the way Accelerated Reader is constructed troubles me.

Here’s how it works:

Kids can choose from more than 100,000 books, all of them assigned points based on a readability formula that determines grade level and difficulty. The company then provides web-based quizzes to schools that students can take to test their knowledge of what they just read.

AR uses a readability formula called ATOS, that measures a book’s average sentence length, average word length in number of letters, word difficulty level, and total number of words in the book.

Under the formula, kids in the AR program get more points for reading the Nancy Drew mystery “The Picture of Guilt”-- 5 points -- than for reading the complicated Shakespeare play Macbeth -- 4 points.

Tom Clancy’s voluminous "Executive Orders," 78 points."Macbeth," the story of a man’s lust for power, is given a book level of 10.9, meaning that it is understandable by 10th or 11th grade. Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Beloved," which depicts a mother choosing to kill her daughter rather than see her enslaved, is given a book level of 6.0, appropriate for sixth grade. It is worth 15 points.

Readability formulas can’t actually determine the quality, context of even difficulty of a book. In fact, a report on these formulas by Renaissance Learning noted that they can’t even measure whether a work is coherent.

According to the report, the first two lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address would be scored exactly the same as the same two lines--but written backwards.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”

Those lines would have the same score as these:

“Endure long can dedicated so and conceived so nation any or nation that whether testing, war civil great a in engaged are we now. Equal created are men all that proposition the to dedicated and liberty in conceived, nation new a continent this upon forth brought fathers our ago years seven and score four.”

I don’t know about you, but I find this somewhat disturbing.

So what are the AR points for? At many schools, kids get rewards of different sorts if they read a certain number of points.

That gives an incentives to kids to choose long books--whatever the quality--because they get more points.

I asked Renaissance about the point structure. Eric Stickney, director of educational research, said that the company is not “concerned that AR points are influencing student book choices.”

“If points were a significant factor in book selection, we’d likely see the top 20 lists dominated by books with high point values. That isn’t the case," he said.

He is referring to a report recently issued by Renaissance Learning about the reading habits of kids, based on the books they select in Accelerated Reader. The report includes lists of favorite books for different reading populations. You can take a look here.

Stickney also said that the purpose of AR points is “often misunderstood.”

Points, he said, “are an easy way for students and teachers to monitor the quantity and quality of students’ reading practice. We do not recommend the use o points as incentives. We believe the majority of the schools using AR understand and follow these recommendations. That said, we do recognize that some teachers may choose to use rewards connected to points.”

Advocates of the program say it helps get kids reading and test their knowledge. Critics say that it not only gives an incentive for kids to pick long books--which get more points than short ones--but also perpetuates the current testing culture by requiring that kids take a test after each book.

I’d like to here from you about your thoughts on this kind of reading program, and any experiences you or your child have had with Accelerated Reader or other supplemental reading programs. Are the books on the list restricted or wide-reaching? Are there incentives for kids to read, and if so, what are they and how do they work?

Let’s talk about this, either in the comments section or at theanswersheet@washpost.com And check back later for another post on reading.

Follow Valerie’s blog all day, every day at http://washingtonpost.com/answersheet/

For all the Post’s Education coverage, please see http://washingtonpost.com/education

By Valerie Strauss  | December 15, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Reading  | Tags:  Accelerated Reader  
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Comments

The program makes sense simply for the fact that few students would seem likley to read the entire Grapes of Wrath. Even with students who attend the best colleges in the US, they are simply admitting not reading classics, though we would like them to.

So, in the end, which is better, reading an entire Nancy Drew, or a few pages of Hamlet? Most Hamlet readers put it down because it is too complicated and they can't figure it out.

Posted by: ericpollock | December 15, 2009 8:59 AM | Report abuse

Let me make a disclaimer: I read all of the "Twilight" books and found them compelling. Now that that's out of the way, I will add that they are also terribly written. I think when you go down the path of "scoring" books, though, you're inevitably going to run into problems. Good writing isn't necessarily a function of complex sentence structure or sophisticated vocabulary. Scoring implies value judgments, and while it's fairly easy for me to differentiate between Stephenie Meyer and Steinbeck, my own biases come into play when I look at, say, Melville as opposed to Henry James. I don't know that you CAN impartially assign scores to books. Reading is an inherently partial act. That's why it's so important.

Posted by: subrosa77 | December 15, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

I think what Valerie is trying too say is that evil has clearly taken over.

Heathens

Posted by: knjon353 | December 15, 2009 2:47 PM | Report abuse

This system isn't perfect, but as you said in your introduction this is a "program that gets kids to read - and read they do," - that's the bottom line. Due to the sheer volume of books that AR is rating, the formula they've come up with is probably the best they can do. It's not entirely flawed - "The Great Gatsby" is a relatively short classic and it received 7.3 points; Julius Caeser got 10.8.)

So we've established that the program isn't perfect, but it is getting kids to read. So how can we make it better?

Since teachers are designing tailored incentive programs based on AR ratings, they should feel free to adjust the programs as they see fit; they don't need to follow it step by step. This could include dividing books into various lists (classic books, lighter reads, Shakespeare, etc.) and requiring students to choose a certain number of books from each list. Or teachers could assign extra points to books/works they know are more challenging, such as "Hamlet" and "Grapes of Wrath." Teachers could also add their own discretion about what's appropriate and what's not for their classroom. For example, AR's formula might deem "Beloved" appropriate for sixth graders, but a sixth grade teacher would probably disagree.

In short, I think the AR guidelines should serve as a starting point and a tool for teachers to develop programs that make sense when put into practice.

Posted by: meganrachele | December 16, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your thoughtful commentary on Accelerated Reader.

As an elementary educator for 34 years, I too have serious reservations about Accelerated Reader. Those are based in research, anecdotal information, and my own observations of what works best with readers.

My nieces were readers. Both their parents are regular readers. From their earliest beginnings as readers I took them at Christmas time on a little book buying adventure. We collaborated on book choices, they chose quality literature and enjoyed the read. Then came Accelerated Reader. The first year they were involved in the program the nature of our book buying trip changed. When I suggested a title I thought they would like their response was “NO, that’s on the Accelerated Reader list!”. The context of Accelerated Reader had put a vast quantity of quality literature on my nieces’ “not fun because required” list of books. The books they chose to read for pleasure from then on were books that by definition weren’t on the AR list. An unintended and tragic consequence.

I also hear from a variety of parents and students that students find ways to work the AR system. They have other students take the tests for example. Not as many students are reading those books as is claimed. Kids are gaming the system.

AR fails to cash in on one of the most powerful motivators for reading, and diminishes the experiences of literature for students. Conversation about books is a simple and effective way to involve, enrich, and extend students interaction with literature. Children and young adults are naturally social and building connections through conversations about the books they read is powerful. AR is isolating and takes the act of reading out of its natural meaning rich complex context into a yet another simplified 10 question get it right multiple choice best guessing game.

AR is one more example of a set of simplistic quantitative measures claiming to reflect something meaningful about a complex process. The tragedy is that the means of measuring impoverishes the process.

Posted by: KathyK1 | December 16, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Valerie I liked your article on homework, but unfortunately you haven't done your homework here.

AR does not reward a book points based on value as anyone who is properly trained in it knows. The points are a measure of "time on task".

In addition, a 6.0 does not mean a book is appropriate for a 6th grader at all. It means the book is written at a vocabulary level of 6th grade. The book's "content" or "interest level" is measured with a LG, MG or UG (upper grade). Beloved has a UG ranking, which means the content is appropriate for 9th grade and up.

People commonly blast AR when they don't understand it. As a teacher, it is very useful to be able to guide kids to books that are appropriate for them, not to reward for "value", but simply to see if they are reading.

And when used right, my kids LOVE it.

Please research more thoroughly.

Posted by: erintexas | December 17, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

In addition, are you recommending that AR use their judgment and opinion to value books?

Posted by: erintexas | December 17, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

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