A major reading program that gives more points to 'Breaking Dawn' than 'The Grapes of Wrath'
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 email@example.com And check back later for another post on reading.
| December 15, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories: Reading | Tags: Accelerated Reader
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