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.