LBS 850 – Week 11 – Accelerated Reader

I recently observed at another voc-tech HS and the biggest thing that stood out to me was that they’re hardcore into Accelerated Reader, to the level that their library is arranged by AR level! Students take a ranking test at the beginning of the year and then have to read 2 books per trimester (6 per year) outside of their assigned classwork/reading. Clearly, the school has gone whole-hog into AR, to the point that their non-AR fiction section was one bookshelf area. Books are color-coded by AR level, then placed on the appropriate shelves (but not in any particular order).

It was interesting, but also madness. To find a book, you had to go to the AR level area and just start looking at the spines. At the very least, I’d organize it alphabetical by author or something.

An interesting side effect of the complete buy-in for AR is that I’d think it limits some of the choices of new books, as they don’t always have AR exams.

All that being said, I like the school’s commitment to outside reading. The kids hopefully learn to read for pleasure, as they can pick any book at or above their AR level. At my school, maybe half the ELA teachers assign AR book reading, but not regularly and not all of ’em. At my school (which, admittedly, is 2/3 the size), the library is quiet and can literally have days where we check out less than 10 books. This other school’s library was BUSTLING. They check out 200-300 books PER DAY. We’re lucky to reach that in 2 weeks.

Back to the other school, I have mixed feelings about the emphasis on Accelerated Reader, but think the benefits outweigh the negatives, at least at New Bedford Voke. There are, of course benefits to students and teachers, with the main advantage being the students are no longer limited to books that the teacher has read, allowing the student to cast a much wider net for reading selections. Because of that, teachers can spend less time creating and editing tests, allowing for more planning and correcting. In addition, New Bedford Voke’s insistence on students reading two books per trimester (or 6 per year) makes for an extremely active library. Mrs. Pinho reported that the library averages nearly 100 books circulated per day, and I observed a near-constant stream of students checking out and returning books. It’s this advantage that makes me feel that it’s overall a benefit to the library.

But Accelerated Reader isn’t all sunshine and roses, there are significant downsides to the program. First, the book must have an Accelerated Reader test, which keeps smaller publishers and less popular books from being included in the student’s options. Secondly, Accelerated Reader can more easily lead to cheating … there are Accelerated Reader exams online that students can download and use before the test to learn the answers. In addition, smart students can also manipulate the system by intentionally doing poorly in the early assessment (conducted in their English class) in order to be placed in a lower reading level. This would allow them, depending on their motivation, to either simply have less/easier work OR to intentionally get easier tests in order to increase their GPA. When asked about this, Mrs. Pinho thought that may be a possibility, but was unaware of it actually happening.

Perhaps the most insidious effect is that when teachers give the students Accelerated Reader choices instead of the group reading as one, the teacher no longer teaches the book. If used too often, Accelerated Reader becomes a crutch or the teacher and prevents the students from addressing the deeper themes of the book. It’s reductive, plain and simple. Teachers no longer teach the material, and everyone suffers some because of the practice. As education marches onward to a generic, standardized, test-driven world, Accelerated Reader is merely another step on the path to a world where analysis, thoughtfulness, and more esoteric philosophical thought are subsumed beneath facts, tests, and assessments.

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