From my Mailbox: A Parent’s Concern with Mandated Reading Program

A parent of a middle schooler in Massachusetts, wrote to me to tell me her concerns with Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Reader program. Her local middle school uses AR to quiz students on their independent reading. Students are only rarely allowed to bring their own books in to read silently in school. Moreover, students are given a book quota for outside reading each quarter and the quizzes are used for “accountability.” Quiz scores are factored into students’ grades.

This parent asked that her children be allowed to opt out.

Here’s the very compelling letter she wrote to the English curriculum coordinator:

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me recently regarding the use of Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Reader to monitor independent reading. As you know, my husband and I have serious concerns about the program and its impact on our children.

From my understanding, the school uses AR in an effort to encourage students to develop the healthy habit of reading for pleasure outside the classroom. This is a goal we share. However, studies show mandating reading in this fashion simply turns something pleasurable – exploring a new book – into just another chore, rather than building intrinsic motivation. Moreover, it can negatively affect intrinsic motivation. Research also shows that, even without the use of tests or rewards, providing books and time to read results in substantial reading gains (Thompson, Madhuri, and Taylor, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 51(7), 2008; Stephen Krashen, Knowledge Quest, American Library Association 36(1), 2007; Jennie M. Persinger, Knowledge Quest, American Library Association, 29(5), 2001; Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards, 1999).

Further, AR is a one-size-fits-all approach. The “qualified” books on the AR list don’t necessarily mesh with students’ reading tastes. Some students may prefer to read nonfiction or magazines rather than novels. Nor does it encourage students to pick up a more challenging book they may not finish. The program, as used here, encourages students to hew toward the least common denominator in an effort to get a better grade.

Even if you assume this is a good program as designed by Renaissance Learning, simply applying quiz scores for outside reading to students’ grades is not what the program’s designers had in mind. According to the company’s website, AR “Essential Practices” include making in-class silent reading a priority, offering easy access to a deep and broad library collection, and testing students within 24 hours of completion of a book. Renaissance Learning does not recommend giving grades for reading practice: AR is intended as a method of monitoring “guided independent reading” as an active, fluid classroom practice, in which quiz averages of at least 85 percent are said to show that students are being optimally challenged. In numerous schools that use AR, it is optional and is used to encourage reading, not punish those whose tastes differ from the norm.

We also object on principle to our children getting the message that only books on some corporate list are worth reading. If reading is to be truly enjoyable, then we need our children to be able to explore their own tastes outside the classroom, without the carrot-and-stick approach inherent in graded AR fact-recall quizzes. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be introduced to classic literature in the classroom – they are. But students should be able to read truly to their hearts desire on their own time – without anyone taking the enjoyment out of it by figuratively reading over their shoulder.”

16 Comments on “From my Mailbox: A Parent’s Concern with Mandated Reading Program”

  1. Mary says:

    Our school also uses the Accelerated Reading program. Students in grades 3 through 12 have AR goals that count toward their reading grades. They pick a book, read it and then take a test. With No Child Left Behind and all the testing required, this is turning into the norm of learning for all subjects. Read and test, read and test, read and test. Doesn’t sound like much fun and definitely doesn’t leave much room for free thinking.

    June 1st, 2008 at 8:40 pm
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  2. Patricia says:

    I completely agree with the postings that are listed on this website. Another point I would like to add with these comments is that there are some school systems that use a specific AR program in hopes of “encouraging” a student to read but they are not using the program in the fashion that I feel AR was designed to do. In my childrens’ school, AR originally was based on a “reward” system that really did motivate students. However, now in the middle and high school levels, the students are now receiving lower grades for not accomplishing targeted goals. I truly feel that AR was not designed to punish students but fact of the matter is that students are being punished. If a student reads a book then takes a computer based test and scores lower than recommended, they are not given any credit for the time and effort it took to read the book! Just because a student reads a book of their own choosing, enjoyed the book, but “fails” the computer based testing, should that student be given a “zero” or labeled as “not comprehending” what was written? I am not sure if the systems that are using the AR programs are trained appropriately or if the teachers are using the AR system to so call “baby sit” students. I have yet to encounter a teacher that used the AR system to “intervene” with a student due to “insufficient” AR points. This is very frustrating to a parent who is an avid reader who is trying to encourage my children to become a lover of books!

    February 18th, 2009 at 10:11 am
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  3. Frustrated says:

    I completely agree with the posted comments. My child’s school (elementary) makes those kids who don’t get points on a weekly basis read during both lunch and recess. Not only are the forced to read only their level but within a timeframe that some students just don’t get. What is even worse is that those who do no meet their goals to not get to participate in the 5th grade activities or go to the graduation ceremony. My child is one who is at risk. He has been reading for the last two months both recesses.. he just can’t seem to pass the quizzes. He reads during reading time, and at home. We have tried books to his interest like Diary of Wimpy Kid which have been a sucess but there are only four books and needs more points… it is just awful he likes Harry Potter but takes too long to read one book and the one he did read and do a book report on (received an A) did not pass the AR test so he will not be going on the 5th grade class field trip to celebrate end of the year along with 10 others just because of the AR points. Mind you these are students who scored High on the Star tests and are getting A’s and B’s who turn in their homework everyday.. it has made my child very upset and no longer wants to read!!! Their teachers has taken an aiding tool and used it in place of teaching. What ever happen to the days where you read chapter books as a class and took the quiz after a chapter??? I say it is just laziness on the teachers behalf!

    June 9th, 2009 at 7:08 pm
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  4. HomeworkBlues says:

    Frustrated writes: My child’s school (elementary) makes those kids who don’t get points on a weekly basis read during both lunch and recess. Not only are the forced to read only their level but within a timeframe that some students just don’t get. What is even worse is that those who do no meet their goals to not get to participate in the 5th grade activities or go to the graduation ceremony. My child is one who is at risk.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    Just reading this makes me deeply sad. I am a voracious reader, it’s the one thing I’d rather do than just about anything and my child is the same way. I doubt she would have grown into the ravenous reader she is if her elementary school had employed such measures.

    Punishment and reading should never go in the same sentence. I’m extracting your comments. Makes kids read during lunch and recess. Now that ought to really turn them on to books. They are forced to read at their level. Oh, my, my daughter would have just shriveled, she was reading well above grade level.

    I would have yanked her out to homeschool in a heartbeat. if reading was used as punishment. Get this. My daughter actually liked homework in first and second but got turned off because her third grade teacher used homework as reward and punishment. If you did all your homework for two weeks, your reward was a one day homework pass! If you didn’t do it, you got more as punishment. This would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. It was the kiss of death.

    Young children are very impressionable. Schools should bend over backwards to make sure they are not sending the wrong message.

    Once we got to public school, already many things were happening to to threaten my girl’s love of learning, her spark, her incessant wish to read and write. What you describe would have been the final straw.

    Just when I think I’ve heard the worst of it, now you’re telling me that kids who don’t reach benchmarks are further penalized by being denied fun year end activities and even graduation.

    And we wonder why so many kids loathe reading. Public school these days cannot see the forest for all the trees. So hell bent are they on getting kids to read, they are employing the very techniques that will assure anything but.

    June 10th, 2009 at 9:20 am
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  5. HomeworkBlues says:

    Frustrated writes:

    did not pass the AR test so he will not be going on the 5th grade class field trip to celebrate end of the year along with 10 others just because of the AR points.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    Am I the only one who sees this as child abuse? My daughter started in a private elementary school and AR was voluntary. AR seems to be taking over reading. Quite like the tail wagging the dog.

    June 10th, 2009 at 9:24 am
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  6. PsychMom says:

    I hate to be so dense, but what is AR?

    You are not alone in seeing this as child abuse….my stomach lurches when I read posts like that and I can sense the helplessness in the parent’s writing. The school system is a bully in these cases and this behaviour should not be tolerated.

    June 10th, 2009 at 9:29 am
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  7. PsychMom says:

    I should clarify…I know what AR stands for, but how does it work? What do kids read? How are they assessed?

    June 10th, 2009 at 9:31 am
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  8. HomeworkBlues says:

    PsychMom, I can’t really tell you because luckily my daughter’s two elementary schools did not employ AR as it is being utilized today. AR, as you know, is Accelerated Reader. What I am reading turns my stomach too. Someone here should write this national program and let them know how schools are using it and what harm it is doing. I don’t care if schools are misusing the original intent. Like standardized testing, even if the original intentions had merit (I never thought so), one could immediately predict into the future how this would be corrupted.

    AR isn’t about to self evaluate because this program is a HUGE money maker, all the schools are using it. So much easier to use scripted lessons with quick computer quizzes than teach your own. I know this is not always the fault of the teachers, they are being spoon fed their job, but teachers could work around this, eliminate the punishments, no?

    Teachers, stop being so passive. While we bleed for you, we are getting awfully tired of all the excuses. Our children’s education is at stake here. We can’t tell them years from now that we stood by and did nothing in order to protect your job. What will it take to fight for the very survival of your profession? If you do nothing in order to protect your individual job, you will win the battle and lose the war.

    June 10th, 2009 at 9:54 am
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  9. HomeworkBlues says:

    I wanted to add, parents, write an opinion piece for your local paper. Try for the national ones as well. AR may not want to rock the boat but they also don’t want negative publicity. It’s your best ammunition. Of course if it’s Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, he’ll just argue with you, saying, nu,uh, not true. Don’t let that stop you. As long as other parents read it, they’ll nod and say, oh, it’s not just me.

    June 10th, 2009 at 9:57 am
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  10. DEb says:

    As a Librarian, I can tell you that AR is the bane of my life. I HATE IT. Since I am fortunate enough to work with kids in grades K-12, I can see the actual effects that it has on our elementary students. They come to the junior high and hate reading. Worse, they don’t want to read a chapter book because they are forced to read numerous “picture books” to meet their AR Quota. Teachers, in a frenzy to force their kids to meet the quota and keep the administration on their good side, allow kids to drop way below the AR zone to read as fourth and fifth graders in the first grade level books. These books are so simple that they have about one to two sentences on one page and a picture on the other. How is that teaching comprehension? How are they learning anything other than if you can’t meet your needs and deadlines, cheat? My librarian assistant and I are told it is none of our business when we suggest that the students not check out books that are so far below their zones. It has even become a personal war here at our school.
    To those of you who are parents and are unsure of this program, I have a few suggestions.
    1. Demand that your child not be a part of AR Program (you have that right).
    2. If you cannot bring yourself to do this, use your local library and check out books on tape. Some children do much better when the book is read to them.
    3. Try reading before you take your child to school, then go into the library (which is hopefully open in the mornings before school…our is) and “help” your child take the test by stressing the correct answers. You’ll find that as long as there is no contest and/or that your child is not one of the top ranked readers (just middle of the road) that the librarians will probably ignore you because I have yet to meet a REAL librarian who likes the AR program (at least not one who isn’t being paid to advertise the company).
    Last, synopsis on the internet are a great refresher for those high school kids who can read what the main points are and get one with it. Most quizzes can be taken with a little help from cliff notes, etc.
    Good luck

    September 29th, 2009 at 3:32 pm
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  11. Deb says:

    By the way, just wanted to add, most schools who use AR don’t allow the teachers to have a choice…so don’t push it off on the teachers. It’s an administration thing…don’t ask me why. Most of the teachers hate it as much as the librarians. It takes away the joy of reading.

    September 29th, 2009 at 3:36 pm
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  12. DeidraHewitt says:

    Wow! I am one depressed parent! When the No Child Left Behind legislation was passed, my kids weren’t in school yet. I had no idea the impact that it would have, on my family’s life. My children’s elementary school experience bears little resemblance to my own, and the changes, as I see them, are NOT for the better.

    Fortunately, although our school uses an AR program, it is optional. It is however, strongly promoted and encouraged, with rewards for the kids that get the most points.

    I agree that the blame goes straight to the top. Of course, many parents probably quietly accept the status quo, which is unfortunate. Teachers appear to feel pressured by administration, who must be pressured by someone above them, and so on…all to insure funding, based on poor legislation. Change in the US seems to always start at the bottom. As with other detrimental measures brought on by No Child Left Behind, I can only hope that more parents will begin to mobilize. We will need the help of teachers, librarians, and every other citizen that we can round up, to be a voice, for our children.

    September 29th, 2009 at 6:26 pm
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  13. DeidraHewitt says:

    Oops…Meant to write, “As with other detrimental measures brought on by No Child Left Behind, I can only hope that more parents willl begin to mobilize against this policy, too.”

    September 29th, 2009 at 7:45 pm
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  14. zzzzz78759 says:

    I am less than thrilled with the AR program, as it’s implemented in my daughter’s school.

    My daughter has some moderate to severe speech issues. The teacher was sending home Kindergarten level books (every book was “…., Dear Dragon”) with my second grader. The teacher claimed it was because my daughter couldn’t read the harder books and no amount of cajoling on my part would change her mind.

    I sent lists taken from the AR book list of books in our school library which I thought would interest my daughter, only to find another “Dear Dragon” in her backpack. We sped through them, then went on to what we wanted to read.

    Because they had no interest to my daughter, she failed the “quizzes” miserably. Well, she didn’t exactly fail, she would consistently get 60%, which AR says is passing but the school insisted she needed 70% (mind you this is a 5 question quiz and it’s impossible to get 70%.)

    It came to a head one day when my daughter came home from school, threw her backpack on the floor and had a complete meltdown.

    I went, armed with my books lists (130 in all), to the principal and told her that if another “Dear Dragon” book came home, it would not be read. Period.

    The principal agreed and of the 130 books on my book lists, the teacher was able to find 4. Talk about failing miserably!

    Lo and behold, my daughter passed every one of the quizzes on those 4 books, all at the second grade reading level.

    Yesterday, she came home with a first grade book.

    Why? The teacher is still insisting she can’t read the higher level books, even though she reads them to me without problem. Of course there are words she needs help with, that’s the whole idea of stretching our reading levels. It broadens our vocabularies.

    As it turns out, the teacher can’t understand what my daughter is saying when she reads the books. She leaves off s’s (because they’re difficult for her to say) and turns her f’s and th’s into p’s.

    I’ve asked if she’s supposed to be reading for fluency and comprehension or so the teacher can understand her? If it’s for understanding, then it should be turned over to her speech therapist.

    The answer, “maybe we could read the books once for comprehension, once for fluency, and once for SPEECH.” Then we’re back to reading every book 3 times, the third time just to be tedious.

    I have also been told that I am not ALLOWED to read to her. If I read a book to her, even though she’s read it herself twice, she can’t take the test on it. If I read her the latest “Magic Treehouse” book, she’s told not to let Mommy read to her (mind we’re not taking the quiz on the book.) When we read together, she’s AFRAID to tell her teacher for fear she’ll “get in trouble”.

    Just when did reading to children turn into a bad thing? I have fond memories of having books that were too difficult for me read to me. I discovered “Kidnapped”, “Treasure Island”, “Call of the WIld”, and “The Railway Children” sitting on my dad’s lap or snuggled in his big chair. I begged for “one more chapter” and waited in anticipation every night for the next installment. THAT’S what taught me to love reading.

    When I was old enough, I started reading those “classics” on my own. By the time I was in third grade, they had to send me to the high school library because I’d read my way, several times, through the elementary school library.

    Back to the AR implementation. The second graders are supposed to get “at least 5 points” per 9 week period. At that level, we’re reading (and passing quizzes for) 10 books. More than one a week. So, are we reading for fluency, comprehension or points?

    The children are not allowed to take books from the library which are not on the AR reading list or at their level. They come in a line to the teacher to yea’s or nay’s each child’s choice. My daughter is not even allowed to do that, her books are assigned.

    Personally, I don’t care if my daughter comes home with “Pat the Bunny”, “Monster Trucks” (for the 100th time), or “War and Peace”. We’ll figure it out.

    The AR program seems to be a decent idea but it’s been altered (I was going to use th “B” word but thought better of it) to the point of making reading just another tedious requirement.

    As frustrating as it is to me, it’s even more so to my daughter.

    September 30th, 2009 at 7:10 am
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  15. K says:

    That is obscene.

    My one son LOVES reading, but doesn’t care about the points. I can’t get him to bother to take the tests for more than half his books (and he’s been over 100 points every year). The second reads (with us and by himself, books “read-to” also count) JUST to get the points.

    Guess who gets more out of reading?

    Reading (if they can select books they enjoy) should be its own reward. Incentive programs get in the way of education (see Alfie Kohn).

    September 30th, 2009 at 11:20 am
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  16. Jamie says:

    My 2nd grader has epilepsy. She is a greater reader. She is reading in the higher 3rd grade level books. The teacher has decided that she needs to be reading chapter books, which I do agree with. Because of her epilepsy she can only read about 20-25 minutes at a time. Needless to say it takes about 5 days to get through a chapter book & quiz on it which is fine with me. If she could read (1) chapter book a week she would get 5 AR points which is also fine with me. But this is the problem they set her AR goal at 7 which means either (5) chapter books & (4) smaller books or (7) chapter books. This stresses her out and stress bring on seizures. She went to school today took an AR test on her first chapter book made a 100 (great) and then had to turn around and read another book (not a chapter book but a higher level book) & made a 60. Which of course brought her grade down to 80 which is not acceptable. We have talked to her teacher this year and last year but they still keep requiring quantity reading over quality reading. This is really the only area and this time that we struggle with. How can I make the teachers understand that this is to much reading for her. She had a love for reading. Now we have tears because she gets so stressed out with the quantity of books they want.

    October 8th, 2014 at 12:41 pm
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