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.”