"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves." -- John Adams

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." -- Indiana Constitution Article 1, Section 6.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be...nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." – Thomas Jefferson

Saturday, March 3, 2012

AR - Reading Incentive or Reading Chore?

Accelerated Reader is a Reading Incentive Program which started out encouraging kids to read...and has grown into a massive data collection project.

Susan Ohanian explains how it works in Accelerated Reader: The Data Softshoe.
With the Business Roundtable and the U. S. Department of Education preaching that teachers can’t manage what they don’t measure, Renaissance Learning™, offers Accelerated Reader, reading management software that promises teachers an easy way to let computers measure and keep track of what students read. This means that students must choose books in a computer-determined Zone, say, Grade 3.5 to 4.0. The student reads the book and takes a computer-delivered multiple choice test. The test results dictate the reading Zone allowed for her next book choice. Zones are determined by a readability formula that counts syllables and sentence length—resulting in the information that The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Color Purple are both written at a 4.0 reading level.

They call this science.

Schools label existing library books according to the AR system and limit new purchases to books in the AR system. In many libraries, books are then shelved by AR numbers instead of by the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress system. This means that in an AR-arranged library, the 2.6 Zone books hang out together, so Junie B. Jones Smells Something Fishy sits next to High interest/low readability titles also clocking in at 2.6--such as Nuclear Submarines and Keeping Cholesterol Low, not Junie B. Jones and Her Big Fat Mouth (2.3) or Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook (3.0).

More often than not, librarians disappear; replaced by paraprofessionals who make sure the computers deliver the tests on schedule. The teacher’s role is reduced to that of data tracker. Here’s how AR describes it:
AR systematically gathers student-level information on daily practice. The software produces reports, which helps teachers track individual progress and consequently make instructional decisions based on the data they receive.
The “information” is student scores on multiple choice test; no enjoyment, insight, or curiosity.
Many schools require students to get a certain number of points, which encourages students to choose books with high point totals rather than books matching their interests. This has the effect of teaching students that reading is done for a reward, not that reading is a valuable learning tool or a fun activity.

Jim Trelease, author of the Read Aloud Handbook has this to say about Accelerated Reader...
Believe it or not, high reading scores have been accomplished in communities without computerized incentive programs, places where there are first-class school and classroom libraries, where the teachers motivate children by reading aloud to them, give book talks, and include SSR/DEAR time as an essential part of the daily curriculum. And the money that would have gone to the computer tests went instead to building a larger library collection. Unfortunately, such instances are rare. Where the scores are low, oftentimes so is the teacher’s knowledge of children’s literature, the library collection is meager to dreadful, and drill and skill supplant SSR/DEAR time.

Here are some serious negatives to guard against:
  • Some teachers and librarians have stopped reading children’s and young adult books because the computer will ask the questions instead.
  • Class discussion of books decreases because a discussion would give away test answers, and all that matters is the electronic score.
  • Students narrow their book selection to only those included in the program (points).
  • In areas where the “points” have been made part of either the grade or classroom competition, some students attempt books far beyond their level and end up frustrated.
Before committing precious dollars to such a program, a district must decide its purpose: Is it there to motivate children to read more or to create another grading platform?
Is this focus on reading for points rather than reading for pleasure or knowledge the fault of Accelerated Reader and Renaissance Learning? Award winning author Susan Straight (Highwire Moon, A Million Nightengales) wrote about Accelerated Reader for the New York Times Sunday Book Review a couple of years ago.
Librarians and teachers report that students will almost always refuse to read a book not on the Accelerated Reader list, because they won’t receive points. They base their reading choices not on something they think looks interesting, but by how many points they will get. The passion and serendipity of choosing a book at the library based on the subject or the cover or the first page is nearly gone, as well as the excitement of reading a book simply for pleasure. This is not all the fault of Renaissance Learning, which I believe is trying to help schools encourage students to read. Defenders of the program say the problem isn’t with Accelerated Reader itself, but with how it is often implemented, with the emphasis on point-gathering above all else. But when I looked at Renaissance Learning’s Web site again this summer, I noticed the tag line under the company name: “Advanced Technology for Data-Driven Schools.” That constant drive for data is all too typical in the age of No Child Left Behind, helping to replace a freely discovered love of language and story with a more rigid way of reading.
Parents, how is AR used at your child's school? Is it an incentive program used to open up the world of words to your child or is it adding stress to the already pressure filled data gathering which is the driving force behind America's public education system? Is it helping them enjoy reading for reading's sake, or just another chore?
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