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Some Thoughts + Recent Articles about Life without Accelerated Reader (AR)

My daughter is in second grade. At her school, this means dipping a toe into the world of Accelerated Reader (AR). I think she's supposed to get five points a month, but it's not required. The idea is apparently to get the kids used to the program. The AR tests haven't been a problem so far (because she hasn't actually taken any tests), but my fear is that AR will eventually drown her love of reading, if I do not fight back. 

WonderHere's one small example. My friend's daughter is in fourth grade at the same school. Recently my friend lamented that her daughter couldn't start the book that she wanted to read (Wonder by R.J. Palacio, a book that most parents and teachers would want a child to be reading), because she wouldn't be able to finish it in time to take the AR test by the end of the month. And she needed to get a certain number of AR points by the end of the month in order to achieve a particular grade in reading. This strikes me as so, so very wrong. When you have a kid who wants to read a particular book at home, the reading "incentive" program should not be what is stopping her.

Another mom talked to me a while back about how her son wanted to read the Harry Potter books, but wouldn't be allowed to take the AR tests because the books were above his so called reading level, and so read something else. This seems again wrong to me. If a child wants to stretch himself because he's fascinated by a particular book (and his parents don't have content issues regarding the book), he should be able to do so. The reading program should not be discouraging him. 

LunchLadyFieldTripOne of my personal concerns is that my daughter likes to re-read books. She reads a particular selection of graphic novels over and over again. Re-reading something that many avid readers do, each for our reasons. But AR is going to discourage this, isn't it? Because you can only take the AR test once. And will she be able to get "enough" AR points for graphic novels, or is the program going to push her to read books that she's not interested in? I know that not all books even have AR tests (particularly nonfiction titles), so that's an issue, too. 

Mind you, I do not intend to have my daughter competing for the leader board in the library, where the kids who have the most AR points are listed. I'm going to follow the example of another parent I know, who told me that she always encouraged her kids to get the minimum required number of AR points, and then read what they wanted. Her kids still read for pleasure in high school. But should we have to be working around the school's program to keep our children reading? This seems really counter-productive to me. The school is spending money on this program, money that could instead be spent on, say, books, and I'm afraid that it will keep my daughter from reading for pleasure? Crazy. 

I get that having a required number of a AR points is a way to force certain kids who wouldn't otherwise be reading to read. I get that the program isn't really aimed at my daughter, or at my friend's Wonder-reading daughter. But if the program is hurting the kids who already like to read, isn't that a problem? And what about the kids who are struggling, and for whom the AR tests are too difficult? Is the program really helping them?

Isn't there a better way? 

My sources say that yes, there is a better way. Here are a selection of articles that I have read and shared recently on the subject:

PassionateReadersPlease, + , read 's post On + All the Other Computer Programs

Pernille Ripp: "And before, someone tells me that for some kids programs like this works, I would like to know what we define as “works?”  Do we define “works” as rushing to read another book?  As sharing the incredible experience a book just provided them with others?  Do we define “works” as cannot wait to read another book, outside of class not because they have to but because they want to?  Do we define “works” as continuing to develop a positive reading identity that will carry them into adulthood?

Or do we define ‘”works” as kids doing it because they are rule followers and don’t want to cause a stir? Do we define “works” as a computer telling us how much a child remembered from the book they just read?  Do we define it as how many points they have gained this year as a supposed reflection on how they have grown as readers?  Or as now we know which book a child should read next because the computer told them so?

Because if that is what we mean be developing lifelong readers then I must have lost my mind."

Me: Pernille has a lot more to say about computer-based reading programs, and what schools should/could be doing instead to foster young readers. Please click through to read the full piece. Honestly, I wish that parents and teachers everywhere would read this, and believe it, and start conversations around change because of it. 

How can create Engagement in a non-AR School by , Connect, w/ authors

Angie's post begins with a reference to a YouTube rant by librarian Colby Sharp about AR. Colby is furious that he can't recommend a book that he thinks a high school student ought to read, because that book isn't on AR, and instead he has to waste his time finding a book that he can recommend to this kid that has the right number of AR points. Colby is not at all polite in his impressions of AR, shall we say. 

Angie Huesgen: "Colby is mad and rightfully so. This topic is not a new one. We know there is little research to confirm that AR increases reading achievement, or turns out readers beyond the books in the system, as Donalyn Miller wrote extensively about 7 years ago. We know the assessment that “places” these readers and provides a reading level range is flawed. Pernille Ripp digs into that assessment in this blog post which includes a response from Accelerated Reader’s parent company, Renaissance Learning.  

We know all this, and yet AR is still widely used as a reading achievement indicator and reading incentive. Colby’s message lit a fire in me and I went down the rabbit hole of reading the comments. The sheer number of those in defense of AR still baffles me but what I really took away from these comments was that human connection was never mentioned. I find it difficult to believe that a computerized program alone is the sole factor in a school’s increased reading engagement and achievement. I would strongly argue that a computer is not what gets kids excited about reading….people do."

Me: Angie's school is a non-AR school, the only one in her district, and she offers a list of ways that kids pick out books in a non-AR school. This list, too, I wish would be widely read by administrators, teachers, and parents. My favorite observation is this one: "You give them total choice in the library. To quote our beloved librarian and some teachers in our school, “This is a library. They can get what they want.”"  

Interesting post  on how his  stopped using  | I'll be interested in outcome

Matt Renwick: "Now that we had collective commitments along with a focus on literacy, I think our lens changed a bit. Maybe I can only speak for myself, but we started to take a more critical look at our current work. What was working and what wasn’t?

Around that time, I discovered a summary report from the What Works Clearinghouse, a part of the Institute of Educational Sciences within the Department of Education. This report described all of the different studies on Accelerated Reader. Using only the research that met their criteria for reliability and validity, they found mixed to low results for schools that used Accelerated Reader...

With a finite budget and an infinite number of teacher resources in which we could utilize in the classroom, I started investigating the use of different technologies currently in the building. I found for Accelerated Reader that a small minority of teachers were actually using the product. This usage was broken down by class. We discovered that we were paying around $20 a year per student.

Given our limited school budget, I asked teachers both on our leadership team and the teachers who used it if they felt this was worth the cost. No one thought it was. (To be clear, the teachers who were using Accelerated Reader are good teachers. Just because they had their students taking AR quizzes does not suggest they were ineffective; quite the opposite. I think it is worth pointing this out as I have seen some shaming of teachers who use AR as a way to persuade them to stop using the tool. It’s not effective.)"

Me: I'll be interested to see Matt's followup reports (and I'm sure that he will post them at some point) on how his school is doing without the AR program. I particularly appreciated that despite the observation that most of the teachers at his school weren't using AR, Matt took pains not to criticize the teachers who were. Teachers have an incredibly difficult job, and it's a fine line to criticize AR if there are teachers who find that it makes their at jobs easier (see next post).

RT @PernilleRipp: On Computer Programs and Our Most Vulnerable Readers as we start our first assessments, please don't forget this 

Pernille Ripp: "A program like Accelerated Reader 360 is easy.  It is quick.  It is less work for us, the teachers.  A child reads a book, takes a test, the score determines whether they understood it, what they need to practice, and what they should read next.  One computer program and so much work has been done for us.

So we hand the companies our money, sometimes instead of buying books.  We place our children in front of computers who decide which books they should read, which skills they should practice.  All we have to do is sit back and print out the results.  We have all the data we need right there.  It is so much easier to teach a child when we don’t have to take the time to get to know them...

We create readers when we give them time to read.  When we help them work through text that they have self-selected.  When we give them choice and the room to explore.  When we offer them many ways to succeed.

When a teacher is there to protect, to guide, to help, to adjust and to learn about the reader that is in front of them..."

We take our most vulnerable.  The kids who hate reading.  The kids who are not where they should be.  The kids whose gaps continue to grow and instead of putting them with a specialist, instead of putting them in an environment where books, and conversation, and interaction, and being on a journey together rule the day.  We push start and then walk away….

And then we wonder why they tell us they never want to read again." 

Me: This post from earlier this summer by Pernille is one that tells me that just as AR seems likely to harm the love of reading for already-eager readers like my daughter, it also has the potential to harm the struggling readers. This makes me wonder: how big is the slice in the middle? How many kids are there that CAN read and take AR tests without too much difficulty, choose not to, but are incentivized to do so by a program like AR? Pernille does address this at the very end of her post, that there are some kids who LOVE the AR program, and enjoy taking the tests. And that's fine. But if you ask me, then the tests should be optional. There shouldn't be some rigid point scale by grade. 

BookWhispererTeacher shares tips for others on Life After | , communities

Leigh Anne Eck: "I fear that many of our teachers would struggle if we discontinue AR because we have used it for so long, and they do not know anything different.  I am sure many teachers, not only those in my district, have this same fear.  I am proof that there is life after Accelerated Reader.

If you know teachers who use AR and are afraid they can't teach without it, then send them a link to this post.  Let this post be their life preserver; give them something to hang on to and let it buoy up their strength to make the decision that is best for readers.

You have to believe that a reading community can and will exist without AR. You not only have to believe it, but you have to live it.  Is it easy? No. One of the positives (if there truly is one) of AR is the ease in its implementation and the little work it places on teachers."

Me: Leigh Anne goes on to first offer teachers suggestions for finding support, starting with reading Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer. She then shares a five-step process for life after AR, beginning with living a literate life yourself, and showing students that you are a reader. The last step is to find value in all reading. I've personally come to conclude that creating readers at home boils down to these things (though of course other things help). Read WITH them and give them choice in what they read. Leigh Ann's list suggests that it's the same in the post-AR classroom.

These posts all suggest, with a considerable degree of passion, that there is life after Accelerated Reader programs, and that there are better ways to nurture a love of reading in kids than giving them fact-based tests on a narrow range of allowed reading. These posts give me hope for the young readers of the future, including my daughter. I think it's safe to say that this will not be my last post about AR.

As I've said many time: my only goal for my daughter's reading is that she LOVES it. I'm not generally a confrontational person, but I will fight against anything that gets in the way of that. 

© 2017 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This post may contain affiliate links.