A Parent’s Concern with Mandated Reading Programs (Part 2)

Last year, I posted a piece by a parent of a middle schooler in Massachusetts, who had asked, to no avail, that her child be allowed to opt out of the Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Reader program.

Today, she provides an update.

Our School’s Use of the Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Reading Product Has a Detrimental Effect on Our Children’s Desire to Read
by a Middle School Parent

Our middle school uses Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Reader quiz product to verify that students are reading books at home. Scores on the 10-20 question fact-recall quizzes are then applied directly to students’ English/Language Arts grades.

AR is widely used in schools in the U.S. and around the world, often in conjunction with prize incentives and awards to “top readers.” Some schools, like ours, use it as part of a reading grade for students’ “free reading” at home – which is separate from in-class reading and literature instruction – despite the company’s clear statement in its supporting material that quiz scores are not meant to be reading grades. I am sharing this here because I know we are not the only parents who are concerned about the unintended consequences of this and similar well intentioned but potentially damaging requirements that turn children’s at-home pleasure reading into a chore.

We initially expressed misgivings about this approach in September 2007, when we first heard about it, but said we would give it a try. In May 2008 we sent a letter to the school indicating that we had given AR a try for the school year and were now convinced that this approach was counterproductive for our children. That summer I met with the incoming middle school principal. I like this principal and it was a friendly conversation, but he made it clear the school would not consider making AR optional for everyone, or letting our family opt out because of our objections.

He listened to my concerns, then reiterated the position that the school needed to monitor at-home reading. He said that while it is great my child likes to read, many students do not get support at home for reading. He said he would talk to my children’s teachers about offering alternative assessments for reading they do at home that does not have an AR quiz. Lastly, he assured me that the use of AR would be reviewed in an upcoming reviews of the English/ Language Arts curriculum for grades 6-12.

In fall 2009, the school department presented part of its long-awaited ELA curriculum review to the town school board, indicating the middle school’s AR at-home reading requirements would continue largely unchanged. We attended the presentation, and subsequently submitted the following letter:

We agree wholeheartedly with the school department that independent reading outside of school should be strongly encouraged. We especially appreciated the questions raised by the board with respect to how the school department seeks to meet our mutual goals in this area.

In light of the school department’s presentation, we felt it important to ask some questions and make some points. First, the questions:

    1. The middle school currently uses Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Reader quizzes as the backbone of its independent reading program, which is separate from in-class literature instruction. Are there any independent studies that gauge the effectiveness of this product in boosting student achievement?

    2. Has the school department looked into any scholarly research as to the most effective ways to motivate middle school students to read independently and develop a love for reading? In the same vein, have they consulted any reading specialists or even a children’s librarian regarding current thinking on adolescent reading motivation? What do other similarly situated schools do?

    3. Why does the school department feel it must assign a grade to students’ independent reading, which is done almost entirely during out of school time? Is there research that shows this is an effective way to get middle school students to enjoy reading on their own time? We ask this question especially in light of Renaissance Learning’s own specific instructions not to use quiz scores as reading grades.

Our comments, based on experience with two middle school students, are as follows:

    * The alternative projects offered to students who read books not on the Accelerated Reader list are not equal. Depending on the teacher, they can be far more work-intensive than taking a 10 question fact-recall test. So, in effect, students who have reading tastes beyond titles found on the AR quiz list are penalized.

    * Not all teachers even inform their students of the alternatives.

    * Book levels listed in the Renaissance Learning database, said to roughly correspond to grade levels, are flawed to the point of absurdity. For example, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is assigned a book level of 4.4; Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is 4.7; Golding’s Lord of the Flies is 5.0; and Alice Hoffman’s Aquamarine is 5.6. Meanwhile, the 32-page picture book Everything I Know About Pirates by Tom Lichtenheld is leveled at 6.1.

    * Point values assigned to titles by Renaissance Learning are also flawed. For example, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is worth 4 points; Hamlet is worth 7; I Like It Like That, a Gossip Girl novel, is 8 points; Twilight, 18 points, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 44 points.

    * Renaissance Learning recommends students take quizzes within 24 hours of completing a book, stating “If students have to wait longer to quiz and they do poorly, you won’t know if they had problems comprehending what they read or if they simply forgot some details.” Students here frequently cannot take quizzes in such a timely manner. Students often are unable to complete quizzes during class time and are instead directed to stay after school to complete a quiz.

    * Counting quizzes toward a student’s overall grade actually discourages students from reading books that challenge them. For example, why would a student read a challenging, richly detailed book, thus risking an 80 on a quiz, when she could read an easy book and be assured a 100?

We appreciate the time and effort the school committee, the teachers and the school department staff put into helping us educate our children. Helping our children develop a love for reading is very important to us. It is something we have nurtured in them since birth. Our observation is that the middle school’s method of enforcing and monitoring at-home independent reading actually has a detrimental effect on our children’s desire to read. We think this is because the program takes something that should be fun and relaxing and turns it into work.

We trust you will all thoroughly review this curriculum, and make changes you deem appropriate. At the very least, we hope the school department seriously considers the Renaissance Learning advice and eliminates the grade portion of the program.

Thanks again for your attention to this issue. We look forward to hearing responses to our questions.

The parent has still not received a response.

22 Comments on “A Parent’s Concern with Mandated Reading Programs (Part 2)”

  1. Ronald Pottol says:

    But I thought the whole point of reading assignments in school was to kill any desire to read anything you were not forced to, or am I missing something?

    🙂

    February 24th, 2010 at 2:47 am
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  2. Matthew says:

    That has got to be one of the most counter-productive “educational” programs I’ve ever heard of. I think the letter writer hit the nail on the head in asking what research the school system had to support the program. The answer clearly is none, and that is a problem that seems to pervade all our school systems.

    Ironically, the schools are now staffed by people who are our worst nightmare of what our schools will produce: uninquisitive, unable to adapt to changing times, assembly-line types who have no vision of what the future will need and no sense of professionalism about their careers.

    February 24th, 2010 at 7:53 am
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  3. FedUpMom says:

    *****
    He said that while it is great my child likes to read, many stu­dents do not get sup­port at home for read­ing.
    *****

    We had the same debate about reading logs. Some other kid doesn’t like to read, so your kid has to do AR? Huh? And the kids who don’t get support at home for reading will somehow magically do the AR?

    Here’s what I think is really going on. The point of AR, like reading logs, is to generate paperwork which makes it look like the kids are reading. The paperwork is so valuable to the schools (especially the public schools) that the students’ desire to read pales in comparison.

    This is why various complaints that sound so important to parents are meaningless to the school. For instance, I’m sure that kids are gaming the system and finding ways to ace the AR quiz without reading the book. You’d think that would bother the school, but I bet it doesn’t. Why should they care? They’ve got great-looking paperwork!

    ******
    I like this prin­ci­pal and it was a friendly con­ver­sa­tion, but he made it clear the school would not con­sider mak­ing AR optional for every­one, or let­ting our fam­ily opt out because of our objections.
    ******

    This is what’s known in the trade as a “good principal”. He has found a way to make parents like him in spite of the fact that he has no intention of taking their concerns seriously.

    *****
    Count­ing quizzes toward a student’s over­all grade actu­ally dis­cour­ages stu­dents from read­ing books that chal­lenge them.
    *****

    Alfie Kohn makes this point all the time. It’s one of the basic de-motivating effects of grades.

    ******
    Our obser­va­tion is that the mid­dle school’s method of enforc­ing and mon­i­tor­ing at-home inde­pen­dent read­ing actu­ally has a detri­men­tal effect on our children’s desire to read. We think this is because the pro­gram takes some­thing that should be fun and relax­ing and turns it into work.
    *****

    Absolutely right.

    February 24th, 2010 at 8:43 am
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  4. Diane Lowrie says:

    In first grade, my son had to read a book a night, fill out a cut-out fish with the name and author of the book, and bring the paper fish to school the next day. The fish was put in a bowl and the teacher oulled out one fish. The owner of the fish rec’ a prize (small plastic thing). Only one prize per student was allowed for the duration of the program. Once my son has rec’d his plastic pen, he told me he didn’t need to read anymore -there was no point because he already had his prize. These programs are most likley doing the complete opposite of their intended purpose. [Luckily, my son “gets” reading for pleasure and we still read every night because we want to.]

    Alfie Kohn has a lot to say about all kinds of incentive reading programs. Here’s one link, with annotated research.

    http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/readingincentives.htm

    Excerpt from the 2009 addendum:

    Linda M. Pavonetti et al., “Accelerated Reader: What Are the Lasting Effects on the Reading Habits of Middle School Students Exposed to Accelerated Reader in Elementary Grades?”, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, vol. 46, no. 4, December 2002/January 2003: 300-311. This study found that “students who did not have AR in elementary school in these two districts are reading more relative to their AR-exposed peers” (p. 308).

    February 24th, 2010 at 8:43 am
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  5. PsychMom says:

    All I can say is if a system like that ever infiltrated (like a virus) my child’s school, she would not be participating.

    As it did last year at this time in Grade 2, the same problem of Novel Study has arisen in Grade 3 and again, reading has shut down in my 8 year old. As soon as she’s forced to read something, she won’t. And she doesn’t even read pleasure books at home right now. The teachers are getting it wrong. If you want young children to become avid readers they must be given the space to choose what they like…….
    ummmm…just like adults.

    February 24th, 2010 at 8:51 am
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  6. FedUpMom says:

    Matthew says:

    ****
    Iron­i­cally, the schools are now staffed by peo­ple who are our worst night­mare of what our schools will pro­duce:
    ****

    Matthew, great point. I remember the light-bulb moment I had a few years ago when I realized that schools are run and staffed by people who — shudder — actually liked school! No wonder I can’t communicate with them.

    February 24th, 2010 at 8:56 am
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  7. FedUpMom says:

    I should add that the features of school that are catnip to the average teacher or administrator — the control freakery, the regimentation, the conformity — are precisely the features that cause me to start looking for the nearest cliff to jump off of.

    February 24th, 2010 at 9:07 am
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  8. FedUpMom says:

    From “Bad Teachers”, by Guy Strickland:

    ****
    You need the principal, but he doesn’t necessarily need you. You are about to interrupt his normal routine and ask him to make some change that could upset his school or his teachers. This will not be the first time he has had to protect his school from “disruptive” influences like you, and he has lots of experience in defending the status quo.
    ****

    February 24th, 2010 at 9:30 am
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  9. Disillusioned says:

    FedUpMom- You’re right. For the most part, the principal is very good at blowing everyone off. What I find astounding is how gullible the parents are! For the most part, they are being “played” at every turn and don’t know it. Have a problem with a teacher? You must be wrong because she has twenty letters written by parents telling them the teacher is wonderful. Don’t want to be involved with the PTA projects? The prinicpal will tell you how important it is for your child to see you involved with the PTA. Upset that they suggest your child should be tested for ADD? The principal’s child had ADD when he/she was in elementary school and the meds sure helped him/her. Have concerns about hiring a tutor? The principal’s children had tutors when they were little and it sure didn’t hurt! (Nothing about whether it helped or not.) Have concerns that a teacher is switching grades (like first to fifth- a big jump). Don’t worry says the principal…that teacher won a teacher of the year award five years ago and is fantastic in any grade!

    Again, if the principal is well liked, the parents will believe any snow job their handed. It is sorta scary how gullible they are.

    February 25th, 2010 at 10:52 pm
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  10. AnonymousTeacher says:

    It is so sad to see that a school system would, however unintentionally, abuse a wonderful program like Accelerated Reader. This program is intended to monitor IN-CLASS Reading PRACTICE. It should never be used punitively. The whole idea is to teach children to love to read. The student’s progress should be based on individualized research-based goals. Goals are set based on the child’s reading level, (NOT grade level.) The principal himself states that many children do not get support at home for reading. This is why Renaissance Learning says in-school time must be provided for reading, and reading time after school should not be mandated. Otherwise, as you say, you are only rewarding those who already love to read, while punishing those who may, for example, be charged with caring for 3 younger siblings while the parent works. The second piece of this is that AR monitors PRACTICE. Successful reading practice is critical to success in any field. Therefore the default “passing” score is 60%. Any child with an 85% average or higher on AR quizzes is experiencing successful practice.
    As an experienced upper elementary teacher, I have successfully used Accelerated Reader for a number of years. I have seen the growth my students make, largely because they have a total (in small chunks) of 60 minutes per day to read in-class! They are immersed in literature all day, through read-alouds, read-togethers, content reading, and independent reading to name only a few. They achieve their attainable goals, and many reluctant readers truly love to read and beg for more reading time by year’s end.
    It upsets me to hear of the ways that AR is misunderstood and abused, because I have seen such tremendous progress in children through its proper implementation.
    One common misunderstanding involves the Book Level and the Point values. Renaissance uses the ATOS system to level books. This software analyzes EVERY word in the book and determines the average level of all the words. This is the “Book Level.” Most of the New York Times’ Best Sellers are written at a level no higher than 4 or 5, while many of the Classics are written at a much higher level. This is why Renaissance also assigns an “Interest Level” to each book. The points, on the other hand, refer to the length of the book; the number of words versus pictures. Thus, nearly all picture books are assigned a value of 0.5 points, while the Harry Potter you mentioned has 896 pages for 44 points, as opposed to MacBeth’s 192 pages for 4 points.
    You are right to keep fighting for correct implementation of Accelerated Reader. Like all tools, used correctly it can create something wonderful, but used incorrectly, results can be devastating.

    April 20th, 2010 at 8:03 pm
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  11. Anonymous says:

    Look on FB for Concerned Accelerated Reader…

    October 25th, 2010 at 5:47 pm
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  12. Chocolate Milk says:

    I kinda like the AR program because I can see what books my children are reading (if we haven’t read them together) and discuss the content of the book, my childs opinions, likes dislikes and so on. However,
    I don’t understand why my childs teacher is restricting what books my child can get from the library. My child is in third grade and reads at a 6th grade or higher level. My child has followed all her teachers guidelines, and after she meets and exceeds the goals set out before her she tries to get higher level books. The teacher then tells her to put it back that her points are high enough and that she must stay at the level she was given. I’m confused and my daughter is frustrated! Its as though they don’t want my child to get “too far ahead of her class” I have also heard from my children and other parents that the teachers are deteting points when the the advanced children are getting extremely ahead of the class. It boggles the mind. Also, My daughter is in an advanced class always gets highest honors and is in both gifted and talented programs (regular and art). They are now breaking up the advanced classes and mixing fast and slow learners together because teachers were complaining that it wasn’t fair that the advanced teachers had it too easy. I guess they are hoping for a midas touch but it doesn’t seem fair that the fast learners have to slow down. I am considering homeschooling for this and MANY other reasons.

    October 30th, 2010 at 12:56 am
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  13. Anonymous says:

    I am amazed at some of the individuals posting on here and their ignorance of the Accelerated Reading program. If the program is used correctly–(this is done by determining each child’s Zone of Proximal Development, assign their independent reading level, and then monitor their progress) it increases children’s reading levels and develops a love for reading. Just like anything else, if someone isn’t educated about the program or hasn’t been to a training, they can do more harm than good.

    April 18th, 2011 at 1:34 pm
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  14. Irritated Middle schooler mom says:

    My son’s librarian informed the 6th grade students at my son’s school that they had to reach their 35 point AR goal before they can pick books out that truly interest them. When I asked her about this, she denied it, and said that it was just a misunderstanding. I don’t think so. I think she just got busted. Her response to my email about this was to fall back on “AR being county mandated.” Can someone please tell me where to start to get some real change going in our local school system. The Board of Ed isn’t interested and most teachers love AR – takes a lot of work off of them. Help!

    August 31st, 2011 at 6:32 pm
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  15. Ian's mom says:

    AR has been a nightmare for my son. He has been discouraged from reading what he likes, ordered to read 2nd grade books in 5th grade to acquire points, and bribed to help the class win a popcorn party for the most AR points.

    This year, he is refusing to do AR and I am standing behind him 100%. It is the only reading work done at his school. The teacher is freaking out!!! There must be some kickback or reward for schools connected to AR. We requested that my son receive no credit for the AR portion of the grade, and that apparently is not acceptable. They want him to earn points. He said no way. What can they do….suspend him? arrest us for being bad parents?

    Students can opt out of dissection and other tasks. Students opt out of homework by not doing it. But when we want to opt out of AR, it’s like we’re criminals–why?

    October 6th, 2011 at 3:51 pm
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  16. HomeworkBlues says:

    You go, Ian’s mom! Stay strong. My child is a voracious reader and I worked hard to let nothing get in the way. Be careful. Long after your son is a fading memory in that teacher’s eye, you’ll have to deal with the consequences of killing his reading passion. Listen to Steve Jobs. Stick with your guns. Let your son blossom and indulge in reading. Just say no.

    October 6th, 2011 at 9:43 pm
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  17. 1Luvnmom! says:

    My daughter is in 8th grade and reads on a college level. Since she began public school two years ago, she has not participated in the AR program as she was never entered into the “system” and would have had to start out reading 4th grade books. When she tried to take a test on a book she had read back then (6th grade) she only received 50% on the quiz because it was not on her level! Her teacher told her not to worry about it because she knew she was a good reader. My daughter always carries books with her. Now this year, her 8th grade teacher wants to count off because she is not reading AR books and demands she reads what the system says is her level! My daughter has just read my entire series if Jane Austin novels as well as started on the Iliad and the Odyssey. Her teacher told her to turn in written summaries for every 200 pages she read and she would “consider’ counting it toward her grade. When she did turn them in, the teacher accused her of plagiarism because my daughter used vocabulary beyond an 8th grade level! Hello? Of course she used vocabulary beyond an 8th grade level! She reads college level books. Now the teacher wants to give her no credit! She scores perfect scores on all of her other work in class and would have an average of 100 except for this AR grade which has dropped her grade down to a 64! Needless to say I am very outraged and have set up a conference with not just the teacher but the principal as well. I do not like the AR program. I agree the point and rating system are inconsistent and ridiculous and now my two younger boys are having the same issues in their elementary school. i want it thrown out as a grading recommendation all together. My kids read because I am a responsible parent and have read to them and had them read to me since they were toddlers. Why should my good parenting and my children’s love of reading be punished for those parents and children who do not have the same desire for reading?

    December 18th, 2011 at 11:14 pm
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  18. CM says:

    I am a teacher in a lower income area with little to no parent involvement. With teachers jobs on the line based on ridiculous Standardized Testing, of course they have to force reading at home. AR is the easiest and in my opinion the paperless way to do this objective. My daughter would read over the summer enough books to reach 3/4 of her points needed for the year and then she would spend the entire year reading whatever she wants. We offer summer reading incentives for any child who reads. We have multiple events all year where the whole school spends time reading together. We offer a time everyday for students to read. Many of our students read non-AR books, including this year the entire Hunger Games Series despite our AR testing only having the first test. The love of reading is built and I am all for creative ways of obtaining points. Many teachers sit and do a verbal book discussion and give points for the books that way. AR programs aren’t inherently evil as depicted in this article. Maybe the answer wasn’t abstaining from the program but supporting the program with adaptations. I understand your perspective but you seem to be lacking the ability to see both sides of the coin. Children who do little to no reading as a child will eventually be adults who are supposed to perform in a productive way within society. You all will be affected by their lack of knowledge when they enter a system that only is advantageous to people of high literacy. Sometimes in order for a child to come to realization that reading is wonderful you have to force them to do it repeatedly. You have to force them to look at many genres and authors. Literature class has so many concepts that need teaching, you can’t possibly spend enough time reading. We are probably moving away from AR because the costs out way any potential benefit. Above all I want to comment that “Ironically, the schools are now staffed by people who are our worst nightmare of what our schools will produce: uninquisitive, unable to adapt to changing times, assembly-line types who have no vision of what the future will need and no sense of professionalism about their careers. This is what’s known in the trade as a “good principal”. He has found a way to make parents like him in spite of the fact that he has no intention of taking their concerns seriously.You need the principal, but he doesn’t necessarily need you. You are about to interrupt his normal routine and ask him to make some change that could upset his school or his teachers. This will not be the first time he has had to protect his school from “disruptive” influences like you, and he has lots of experience in defending the status quo.” are all inflammatory, ignorant comments. All you voters out there have shaped the current administrators and teachers. Lawsuits, Curricullum Requirements, Standardized Testing and above all “No Child Left Behind” have all dictated that creativity in the classroom is no longer relative to learning. Teachers may believe this to be contrary to truth but must follow what is forced on them or lose their jobs.

    May 24th, 2012 at 9:32 am
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  19. Max says:

    This year both of my daughters participated in the Accelerated Reading program, I found out to my dismay that every-time my children had failed in their goals for this program. They were denied all their recesses by their teacher and placed into detention with students who were there for behavior issues. They stayed in this detention until they achieve their reading goals. While they were placed in detention, they had to read. This type of treatment, in my opinion, is very abusive. We complained to their Principle, but he told us that this was their school policy. Even thou we got them out of this detention. We are now looking for a new school.

    May 4th, 2013 at 6:43 am
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  20. HomeworkBlues says:

    Max, that sounds awful. At best, it will totally turn your girls off to reading. At worst, as you say, it is highly abusive. Good for you that you don’t tolerate this corrosive behavior and that you are voting with your feet.

    I shudder. My daughter is such a voracious reader. Her elementary school had an AR program but it was optional. Most times, my daughter just opted right out of it. The only time I had a pang is when she didn’t get an award at the end of the year. I knew she arguably read the most at that school but they didn’t know it.

    But we are diehard Alfie Kohn devotees and after that brief tinge of disappointment, I just stopped. I knew she was reading, I knew she loved it, and that’s all that mattered.

    I cannot help saying this. If the goal of schools was to extinguish creativity, curiosity and love of reading, I cannot think of a better way to achieve that. Making a child miss recess for not reading associates reading with punishment. Your child may want to avoid the punishment but she will also link reading with punishment. Something abhorred and done only to avoid punishment. Will the reading still be there when the punishment is not?

    May 6th, 2013 at 3:46 pm
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    May 24th, 2015 at 2:57 am
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  22. Anonymous Parent says:

    I am a University Professor who recently moved the family across the United States and my daughters are now in a school with AR reading. All I know about the AR reading program is from our experience this year – My oldest daughter went from a straight A student in a pre-ivy league school that absolutely LOVED reading to completely refusing to read!! In fact, she used to love reading so much that I would catch her reading all night long! She read books that are considered “above” her AR level that she is now no longer “allowed” to read according the AR reading program! Now we are fighting with her to get her to read even the most simple book – and she will state that “she hates reading now because its boring”!!! In my opinion AR reading has done irreparable damage to my daughter’s sense of wonder and excitement over reading! In fact, I would absolutely avoid ANY school that uses the AR reading system! My daughter tested grades above her class at the beginning of this school year….but after several months of the AR reading program she is now tests well below her class level!! As an educator, I find this entire system to be very counter productive!!! I can not believe that this system was “sold” to so many schools as a good way to test/teach reading!! Someone has definitely been sold a “bill of goods”!!! As a Professor, I will tell you that this program will absolutely kill your child’s sense of excitement for reading and as a parent, I will passionately fight this system with every fiber in my being!! Kids should be allowed to “opt out” of the AR reading program so they can read books that are interesting to them even if “someone” thinks that their book choices are “beyond” their reading level!!!

    February 22nd, 2016 at 11:46 pm
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