Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I compromised a principle today.

I wrote Shamrock a check for just over $60 to pay for 20 Accelerated Reader (AR) tests.

For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of working with AR, it's a computerized system that allows students to take standardized tests on books they've read. They get points for every test they pass.

The book are rated according to sentence and word length, and the longer the book the more points the test is worth. The Very Hungry Caterpillar has a difficulty rating of 2.9 and a point value of .5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has a difficulty rating of 7.2 and a whopping point value of 44.

Accelerated Reader is a perfect match for the current educational mentality – packaged, computerized and measured to an impressive-looking tenth of a point. Scores can be endlessly analyzed, compared, graphed and regressed.

Like many schools, Shamrock makes AR a big deal. Students have individual reading goals for every quarter, with a big party for those who reach their marks. At the end of the year, the school bestows awards upon the top point-getters in every grade.

But Accelerated Reader has its problems. Most obvious, its multiple-choice tests are strictly factual (some parents would say trivial). A sample question for Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix might be: "When Harry and Cho Chang went to Hogsmeade for Valentine's Day, they stopped at a) The Three Broomsticks b) Zonko's Joke Shop c) Madame Puddifoot's or d) Honeyduke's." (Warning to potential cheaters: I made this one up.)

Basically, the tests measure whether a student has actually read the words in a book, not whether he or she has understood the themes, character development, descriptive power, or anything else that matters.

Our marvelous media center specialist occasionally points out that her take on AR is significantly shaded by the fact that The Color Purple and The Poky Little Puppy have identical difficulty ratings of 4.0 (although, admittedly, a student would get 9 points for reading The Color Purple, and only .5 for The Poky Little Puppy.)

These ratings cause their own complications. It is far too easy for teachers to use AR numbers to micro-manage students' reading -- requiring students to read only those books within a specified range. Three years ago, a teacher who thankfully is no longer at our school told one of Parker's friends that he wasn't allowed to read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire because its difficulty level of 6.8 lay above his designated range (he read it anyway, took the test on the sly, and notched a perfect score, which earned him 32 points and a scolding from the annoyed instructor).

The ratings can also trip up high-flying students, whose mastery of high-difficulty books such as John Madden's Heroes of Football (7.5) can lead them to shun works with lower difficulty levels but far greater thematic richness, works such as Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (4.7), Lois Lowry's Number the Stars (4.5), or Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (4.4!).

And at a school like ours, where funds are at a premium, student reading can be limited by the number of tests that the school can afford to buy (as with so much else in modern education, measuring student progress means big profits for the companies that can snare a piece of the action). In a world of educational equality, we'd do what wealthier schools do and buy the program that gives students access to every AR test there is, so they could get credit for reading anything and everything that strikes their fancy. But that setup costs several thousand dollars, plus a yearly license fee. It's beyond our reach.

For these and other reasons, I don't really like AR. But given all the things we have to fight for at Shamrock, challenging AR's privileged position isn't my top priority. And Parker's started to read the Percy Jackson books – The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, and so on. I think they're great, and I know that if the school has all the tests, more of our students will be encouraged to read them as well.

So I've written out the check (you have to buy at least 20 at a time, so I'm throwing in tests for the Artemis Fowl books, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and a few others as well).

Like our media specialist, I'd rather buy books than tests. But sometimes you have to compromise.

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