Do no Harm

When used casually, AR helps students’ reading abilities grow. When used thoughtfully and with proven techniques, it leads to tremendous gains and a lifelong love of reading. – Getting Results with Accelerated Reader, Renaissance Learning

I am currently reading aloud Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce to my 10 year old son. It is an interesting “what if” story: the main character and his older brother find a bag of money thrown off of a train in England. The problem is that England’s currency is soon transitioning from pounds to the euro. To add a wrinkle to the narrative, the main character’s mother recently passed away. To add another wrinkle, the main character can speak to deceased saints canonized within the Catholic Church. This story is nothing if not interesting and hard to predict.

Reading aloud to my son sometimes leads to conversations about other books. For instance, I asked him about a fantasy series that also seemed to stretch one’s imagination. I thought it was right up his alley. Yet he declined. Pressed to explain why, my son finally admitted that he didn’t want to read that series because he failed an Accelerated Reader quiz after reading the first book. Here is our conversation:

Me: “When did you read the book in that series?”

Son: “Back at my older school.”

Me: “Why did you take a quiz on it?”

Son: “Because we had to take at least one quiz every month.”

Me: “Did you not understand the book?”

Son: “I thought I did. It was hard, but I liked it.”

This is an educational fail. When an assessment such as Accelerated Reader causes a student to not want to read, this should be a cause for concern. To be clear, Accelerated Reader is an assessment tool designed to measure reading comprehension. Yet it is not a valid tool for driving instruction. What Works Clearinghouse, a source for existing research on educational programming, found Accelerated Reader to have “mixed effects on comprehension and no discernible effects on reading fluency for beginning readers.” In other words, if a school were to implement Accelerated Reader, they should expect to find results that were not reliable, with the possibility of no impact on student learning. Consider this as you ponder other approaches to promoting independent reading.

It should also be noted that none of the studies listed took a look at the long term effects of using Accelerated Reader on independent reading. That would make for an interesting study.

I realize that it makes simple sense to quiz a student about their comprehension after reading a book. Why not? The problem is, when a student sees the results of said quiz, they appear to attribute their success or failure to their abilities as a reader. Never mind that the text might have been boring and only selected because of points, that the test questions were poorly written, that the teacher had prescribed the text to be read and tested without any input from the student, or that the test results would be used toward an arbitrary reading goal such as points. Any one of these situations may have skewed the results. In addition, why view not passing an AR quiz as a failure? It might be an opportunity to help the student unpack their reading experience in a constructive way.

What I would say is to take a step back from independent reading, and to appreciate it as a whole. What are we trying to do with this practice? Independent reading, as the phrase conveys, means to develop a habit of and love for lifelong, successful reading. This means the appropriate skills, strategies and dispositions should be developed with and by students. Any assessment that results in a student not wanting to read more interferes with that process and causes more problems than benefits. The Hippocratic Oath in medicine states “Do no harm”. Sounds like wisdom education should heed as well.

Suggestion for further reading: My Memory of The Giver by Dylan Teut

Are you going to take a quiz on that book?

51Z6V9NQKkL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I just finished reading aloud Adventures of a South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz to my daughter. It’s about a farm pig named Flora who hitches a ride with explorers and takes a journey over the oceans toward Antarctica. Flora thinks she is a part of the crew as a “sledpig”, but the ship’s cook has other intentions…

After finishing the book, I almost asked her if she wanted to take a quiz on it at school the next day. Fortunately, I stopped myself and, instead, briefly discussed the book’s ending with her. She wanted to know if there was a second book about Flora. I said that I wasn’t sure and that I would check into it.

Our school resides within the city that serves as headquarters for Renaissance Learning, home of Accelerated Reader. It is one of our area’s biggest employers. Renaissance Learning has a national and global presence in the educational world. I know educators who have left teaching and taken positions within their company related to sales and training. Some of my staff have spouses who work there. You can understand the internal conflict I might experience as I write this post.

If you are not familiar with Accelerated Reader, students take a quiz about the book they just read to check for comprehension. They can earn points based on the complexity of the text. According to Eric Stickney, Director of Educational Research for Renaissance Learning, “Points are a mashup of three factors: volume of text, difficulty of text, and student comprehension of that text.” I have never observed the use of the phrase “mash up” within the context of educational research. Have you?

Anyway, students can earn points toward their Accelerated Reader goal with each book they read and then pass the quiz. There is a flower visual that fills with color, which creeps closer up to the petals with each book read. Is a student a proficient reader if his or her flower blooms? Is a student a poor reader because his or her flower failed to reach maturity?? Why are they using flowers?!?

We have these technologies in our classrooms, and we know that we should use them thoughtfully and with intention. We understand this, and yet their mere presence, just even knowing that they exist in a learning space, has some type of pull where we want to maximize its use regardless of its impact on student learning and engagement. If we are used to having these technologies in our classrooms, it can be a hard habit to break, even when we come across knowledge that clearly shows that external rewards do not building lifelong readers and learners.

After my daughter went to sleep, I went to Chris Kurtz’s website to find out if a sequel to Adventures of a South Pole Pig did exist. Alas, no. That’s okay. Kids need to understand that some books as good as this one deserve to stand on their own.

What I did find on his website was an interesting reflection from the author about his school experience:

The most important thing I learned in school was how to read. But it was not the most wonderful thing. The most wonderful thing I learned was to love books. Reading words connected me to a page of paper. Reading books connected me to the entire universe, hundreds of new thoughts, millions of people, and to myself.

This quote gave me pause. If I had asked my daughter if she wanted to take a quiz on the book we read together, would I have stopped her from wondering if there was sequel? Would that simple question have reduced her desire to keep on reading within this genre and lessen her relationship with the written word? Would she have connected reading as something that we do exclusively in school instead of something to love? I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that I am glad that I didn’t ask.