Accelerated Reader: The Data Softshoe
"I don’t want children to see books as something to be cashed in. I hope that teachers and parents will think about pleasure reading, think about whether attaching points to books puts children at risk of missing out on meeting up with books that resonate with their psyches, books that tickle their funny bones, awaken their sense of beauty, kindle their curiosity about the physical world around them; books that inspire their sense of justice"
What good news! More than half of the school districts in the U. S. participate in a program that encourages students to read books. Not sanitized textbooks but real books from the library.
What bad news! The program is Accelerated Reader (AR), a system that turns reading into consumerism, with students choosing books by the number of points they offer toward gimcracks ranging from a Frito-Lay snack pack to braggadocio bumper stickers for their parents cars, to a turn in the whipped cream pie toss at the principal.
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.
A Corporate Approach to Reading
When a student finishes an AR book, he pulls up a quiz on the computer and answers a few multiple-choice questions onscreen. In an all-or-nothing system, points are awarded if a student answers 85% of the questions correctly. Factual recall of details is the only type of question AR asks and remembering discrete facts in a complicated plot is difficult for any reader, neophyte or sophisticate. When world-renown literacy expert Professor Stephen Krashen took a sample quiz for Harry Potter, Chamber of Secrets after reading it and listening to it read on tape, he got just one answer right. So he retook the test: “I really tried hard on it. I managed five right out of ten.” No points. And points are what drives this reading program. Students use points to shop for awards and merchandise and they are reminded: “You must have an 85% correct answer average to be able to shop.”
Asking the student if she liked the book is beside the point. The computer tells her how many points she’s earned in the merchandise marketplace. Every book in the AR system carries the go-get-‘em marketplace “sell” of reading-for-rewards, provoking an AR -designated 4.8 reader to go for the nine points payoff attached to for Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, instead of the paltry one point each for the age-appropriate Stone Fox or Harry Kitchen and Tucker Mouse. A 4.4 reader can rake in 10 points for reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the quintessential lost-generation novel featuring the narrator’s sexual impotence. Surely that’s affront enough, but here’s the real tragedy. A young reader who likes hands-on projects and figuring out how things work will accrue only ½ point from Everyday Science Experiments in the Backyard (4.0). This is because The Color Purple, though also rated at a 4.0 reading level, is 300 pages long and Everyday Science Experiments just 28. The bean-counting system traveling in the name of science doesn’t take into account that a child bubbling over with curiosity may well spend a week on one page from a ½ point book to work out an experiment. This child faces AR meltdown. Nobody is going to ask him what he found out. Think of this child as you listen to the corporate-politicos yelp for schools to produce more mathematicians and scientists. They insist this can be done by increasing the number of Advanced Placement classes in high school. Never mind the curiosity of a 9-year-old.
In the old days before the data softshoe replaced schools staffed by librarians, professionals chose the books to fill library shelves. Click on “library” on a school web site these days, and frequently the school’s AR book list pops up. There, absent a librarian, one can find a collection of stories Roald Dahl wrote for Playboy as well as his children’s fare. In the AR data juggernaut, elementary schools in Alabama, Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin offer Dahl’s Skin and Other Stories rated at the same grade level: 5.4, as Eleanor Estes’ classic The Hundred Dresses. Whereas Estes offers readers 1 point, Dahl’s book, written for an adult audience (though remarketed by Viking for teens), delivers 9. Alexandria Ripley’s Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind clocks in at 5.5 and delivers 47 points. According to the AR count, Estes’ book has 7,329 words, Dahl’s 60,306, and Ripley’s 306,004.
The fact that library books now come with a sticker price is a sign of our times.
Many schools list their AR collections three ways: by author, by title, and by points. This accommodates young point hustlers who want to cut to the chase: skip the author, skip the theme, just go for the points. And the points-for-prizes fandango incites children to game the system, to develop their talents as opportunistic flimflammers in their frenetic rush to acquire points. It actually discourages children from reading thoughtfully, finding pleasure in the text. AR trains kids to read for the payoff, the shopping spree for cheap merchandise, thus mutating young readers into mercantile compactors. Aesthetics is reduced to a reading-for-bounty benefits package. Parents report that children won’t touch recommended old favorites unless they are in the AR system. . . and offer enough points.
The Payoff: Reading for Junk Food and Mayhem
Depending on regional zeal for getting kids on the competitive treadmill race for doodads, teachers and parents come up with various points-for-prizes systems. The library at a Texas elementary school has an Accelerated Reader Store Prize Coordinator who collects prizes from area businesses. Think about that for a moment; a school needing an AR frippery coordinator. The AR Award Ladder at a California Distinguished School serving grades 1-6, includes “Local Business Awards” for the kids: McDonald’s cheeseburgers and Domino’s Pizza. In Illinois, a middle school online store offers a hierarchy of gee-gaws: SweetTart Chews at 5 points, Gummy Race Cars for 15, a lip gloss keychain for 60 points, and so on. In North Carolina, a second grade teacher offers a system of 10 points for a fruit roll up, 20 points for a Frito-Lay Snack pack, and 50 points for ice cream. Another teacher bases the way kids line up for lunch, for recess, and for dismissal on AR points: The kid with the most AR points gets to be first in line.
AR supporters protest that AR can’t be blamed for what individual schools do. But the AR company website has highlighted more point schemes:
- Wyoming: For reading 3 chapter books at the top of their ZPD, students are rewarded with a homemade ice cream party.
- Texas: Every Friday parents of children receiving point club certificates or certification awards are invited to have lunch with their child. In this way the parents are recognized with their child and the entire school celebrates with them.
- Ohio: Every Friday students who have increased their points by 5 are given a can of pop to drink during reading time.
- S. C.: The principal agreed to ride around the school parking lot in a go-cart with a colored wig on her head and have the top readers in each grade level throw a whipped cream pie at her.
- Louisiana: Accelerated Reading time is called "WAR" (We All Read). Since students are declaring WAR on reading, for the kickoff day everybody wears military gear to school and has “K” rations for lunch.
Some schools set class and school annual goals for points, resulting in a Wall Street-type frenzy. As part of the payoff for schools reaching their goals, principals shave their heads, dye their hair pink, kiss a pig, dress up like Elvis, sit in a bathtub of Jell-O, and so on.
Other schools opt for an in-your-face demonstration of privilege, designed to appeal to older students. The Kimberly Middle School instituted an AR Dawgie Bag. When a student reaches his quarterly AR goal on time, he picks up an AR Dawgie Bag at the library. He takes the bag home and fills it with his favorite snacks and then is allowed to carry it to classes and munch out of it all day. Students are given strict instructions about sharing these munches:
You are the one who made your goal. Your friends will have to earn their own AR Dawgie Bags (which they will not be able to share with you either). People caught distributing their treats will lose their bag and their treats.
Punished for sharing!
We’ve known from pronouncements and programs funded by the U. S. Department of Education that altruism is passé for schools intent on getting students ready for the global economy. Still, purely as a practical matter, how much fun can it be for a kid to sit and munch when nobody else is allowed to have any food? A Nevada teacher offers this variation:
I teach both 7th and 8th grade English and Accelerated Reader is a part of my student's quarterly grade. One motivator I use for students to reach their goals is an AR "Pop Star" coupon. Our school has very strict rules regarding soda in the classrooms. As soon as my students reach their goal, they receive an AR Pop Star coupon that gives them permission to bring a soda in to my class every day for a week. It's a great incentive. The kids feel like they're breaking the rules and it's a visible reminder to the other kids to get their quizzes done.
Now this is reading incentive: Read a book so you can consume lots of empty calories, rot your teeth, and break school rules.
Our children deserve better.
A Close Look at What Happens When A Book is Judged by Its Syllable Count
With over 100,000 titles in Accelerated Reader’s data bank, there is a lot to be discovered about a marketplace approach to literacy. The sample titles below show children’s classics marching right alongside adult titles: Pulitzer Prize winners, bestsellers, and bodice rippers. Perhaps Faulkner in fourth grade is just the logical extension of the national mania for eliminating recess and instituting kindergarten reading requirements.
Let’s take a look at a few more books classified according to the AR system.
Author Title Grade Level Points
Beatrix Potter The Tale of Peter Rabbit 4.0 0.5
Alice Walker The Color Purple 4.0 9
H. A. Rey Curious George Rides a Bike 4.1 0.5
William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury 4.4 14
E. B. White Charlotte’s Web 4.4 5
Peter Rabbit and Curious George rate only ½ a point in AR’s system because of their length. Peter Rabbit’s tale is told in 975 words, George’s 1,482. Alice Walker uses 66,556. Syllable count is part of the formula used to rate a book’s difficulty, so Potter’s repeated use of Mr. McGregor’s name and H. A. Rey repetition of the word “curious” to describe George skews the results.
Here are a few more titles to consider.
John Grisham The Firm 4.6 20
Sharon Creech Absolutely Normal Chaos 4.7 9
J. D. Salinger Catcher in the Rye 4.7 11
Dav Pilkey Captain Underpants & the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants
With characters like Captain Underpants and Professor Poopypants, it’s not hard to figure out why Pilkey outranks Faulkner on the difficulty scale. His book brings in just 1 point because it contains just 5, 582 words, while Faulkner uses 96,931 words for the telling. The book is recommended for the college-bound but even nine-year-olds who are college bound may well have difficulty with the stream of consciousness presentation made by unreliable narrators; not to mention the promiscuity, castration, mental disintegration, and suicide.
I searched hard to find a book of poetry that delivered more than ½ point. Volumes by Valerie Worth, X. J. Kennedy, Douglas Florian, Donald Hall, Eve Merriam…just don’t have enough words. Shel Silverstein’s perennial favorite Where the Sidewalk Ends isn’t in the system.
Instead, sixth graders can choose between John Updike‘s Rabbit is Rich (6.6, 28 points), which Angus Wilson characterized as “sexy, in bad taste, violent, and basically cynical,” and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, peopled, in Steinbeck’s words, “by whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” or Norman Mailer’s account of a sociopath. At a middle school in Idaho, AR’s “scientific [sic] data” puts Updike between Robert Lawson’s Rabbit Hill (6.4, 3 points) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 6.7; 14 points. In a real reach into corporate capriciousness, sixth graders can opt for Tomie De Paola’s Strega Nona’s Magic Lessons (6.0, ½ point).
How does a picture book aimed at the preschool set gets slotted for 6th grade readability? By using Bambolona 30 times, De Paola makes his readability index soar. Counting machines traveling under the name of science don’t notice that this is a character’s name, nor do they note that other frequently-used multi-syllabic words are names: Antonia appears 24 times, Anthony 21. Perhaps the 83 repetitions of pagoda in Jack Gantos’ Jack’s Black Book are what drive its readability (4.8) higher than Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury (4.4), where the most frequent word is Dilsey. Gantos’ 2012 Newbery Medal title Dead End in Norvelt clocks in at 5.7 and 12 points.
Readers are very much shortchanged by the AR ratings for David Macaulay’s engrossing books: Underground (8.7, 2); Mosque (8.4, 1); Ship (7.9, 1). And so on. Why the low point offerings? Book length drives points, and except for the 400-page, wildly popular, The Way Things Work, which is inexplicably unavailable to AR readers, the Macaulay titles all contain fewer than 100 pages. Page-counting machines don’t notice that not all pages are equal and so Macaulay titles rate only one point, and so young readers who yearn to earn enough points for a soda or to throw a pie at their teacher opt for the immediate payoff instead of an adventure in discovery. No one seems to notice the hypocrisy of education reform leaders pontificating about a crisis in developing students’ interested in math and science who at the same time fill schools with data collection systems that diminish that very thing.
For fourth and fifth graders, this high tech reading formula untouched by human sensibility delivers a cross between a bad hair day and metaphysical meltdown. Titles clocking in at 5.6 include Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Babe the Gallant Pig (King-Smith), Dominic (Steig), Lyddie (Paterson), The Optimist’s Daughter (Welty), Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein), To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee), and The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold (Block). Here, Sleeping Beauty pricks her arm with a heroin needle, Red Riding Hood’s wolf is a lecherous stepfather, and the Snow Queen is a sex goddess who lives in a marble mansion with her boy toy. Amazon.com says, “As always, Block’s poetic allegories of adolescence are strikingly original and a bit dangerous, a feast for connoisseurs of YA fiction and savvy older teens.” Savvy older teens. But Accelerated Reader tags it for fifth graders, so while a 10-year-old can pick up three points for reading it, the book’s 5.6 grade rating make it unavailable to a savvy teen, who’s supposed to be deep into The Three Musketeers (ll.3, 42 points) or Hamlet (10.5, 7 points). At 8.7, even Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is rated as “too easy” for that savvy teen.
On a National Council of Teachers of English online discussion list, a librarian worried about the problem of able young readers being forced to read beyond their emotional level.
“I can't in good conscience tell any more 10- and 11-year olds that they have to choose from Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice: 12, 25 points) just because ‘it's at their level.’ They still want to read Caroline Cooney (The Party’s Over: 6.1, 7 points) and Sharon Creech (Walk Two Moons: 4.9, 9 points), Bruce Coville (The Revolt of the Miniature Mutants: 5.3, 3 points), and John Erickson (The Further Adventures of Hank The Cowdog: 5.6, 4 points).”
Oh pish posh, let them read Moby-Dick: 10.3, 42 points.
Does It Work?
Writing in the Journal of Children’s Literature, Tamela McCann observed that when her young ‘gifted’ daughter should have been reading picture books, because she tested above her age level, she was forced into more sophisticated fare and “missed out on being able to read many wonderful books, simply because they ‘weren’t on her level’. . . .” Just because a young reader can read something doesn’t mean she should. In the same journal, Leslie Zundel noted that the three 6th grade teachers in her daughter’s school staged class competitions for points, giving a box score every day. “My daughter didn’t care about the race and enjoyed seeing her teacher explode when his class wasn’t winning.” Worse, although the girl is an honor student, she says she hates reading and doesn’t pick up a book voluntarily. This is what happens when data trumps a child’s emotional, social, and aesthetic needs.
Let Values Drive Reading
Jack Prelutsky’s poetry collection The Swamps of Sleethe (6.6) earns its reader just ½ point because its word count is 1,997. At 6.3, Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, 355,226 words, garners an “easier” rating and carries a whopping 58 points. I’d want to talk to a parent before handing this 58 point Pulitzer Prize account of Gary Gilmore’s troubled journey to become the first person executed in the United States since the reinstitution of the death penalty to an 11-year-old. But many schools, trying to save money, have dismissed professional librarians (who never would have selected the book for an elementary school library in the first place).
As a longtime teacher, I want an 11-year-old to ponder over Douglas Florian’s more spare Insectlopedia. Its masterfully inventive and witty 48 pages, like most poetry volumes, deliver a mere ½ point. The 3.3 label puts the book out of range to many primary graders and makes it forbidden fare to middle graders who are not allowed to read “below” their assigned level. Like most of Florian’s work, this one transcends age limitations. Such word play as shown in the title is not just fun: it helps young readers figure out how words work, inspires them to consider word families and derivations, and synonyms, not to mention logic and divergent thinking, A child lucky enough to read the book will then take an AR quiz which has nothing to do with the message the book delivers.
When a market mentality penetrates national identity and we no longer ask our institutions to uphold our values, then marketplace reading travels comfortably with marketplace teacher evaluation, marketplace school governance, marketplace diminution of the arts in schools, marketplace replacement of recess with test prep, and marketplace democracy itself. People seem to accept that business is the business of public schools and that what business wants business should get. When a technology driven delivery system takes over the function of a professionally staffed library, nobody squawks. I don’t hear the National Council of Teachers of English or the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics calling for professional librarians in the schools. Their failure to do this is shortsighted. It hurts children.
Corporate America rules, convincing the public that the market knows best; better than parents, kids and teachers. The marketplace tells schools that the data must drive all decisions, including which books our fourth graders read. And these Dataphilics dare to call their system “scientific,” surely the bogus education buzzword of this decde. Anytime a government official uses it, know you must protect your child.
I don’t want children to see books as something to be cashed in. I hope that teachers and parents will think about pleasure reading, think about whether attaching points to books puts children at risk of missing out on meeting up with books that resonate with their psyches, books that tickle their funny bones, awaken their sense of beauty, kindle their curiosity about the physical world around them; books that inspire their sense of justice.
Let’s not sell children short. Let’s not sell books short. We must demand that young readers encounter shocks of recognition, seeing themselves in books and seeing other people with whom they can find kinship and empathy. Simply put, we want well-rounded education, and literature is the heart and soul, the face and hands of information.
Let the kids celebrate words, unpolluted by market values.
Susan Ohanian is a longtime teacher of students with reading difficulties. She has written 25 books about the policy and practice of public education. Susan's website about public education is www.susanohanian.org . It was awarded the National Council of Teachers of English George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language.