In the first part, I discussed the merits of Accelerated Reader despite its failures to live up to its purported claims. In this post, I want to delve in a little deeper into some of the aspects of the incentives program, testing, and content that I find problematic. Do check out the
INCENTIVE: Accelerated Reader does offer a wealth of content. It provides the opportunity for school systems to instantly broaden the reading library for students. These are all tremendous advantages. However, by incentivizing the program, Accelerated Reader has driven students towards reading only those books that can earn them rewards, and/or that have testing developed to coincide with the reading. In any incentivized program, we do have to be wary of the reader’s motivation. We are trying to instill intrinsic motivations, so we do have to weigh the effect that extrinsic motivations will have upon long-term reading. Nancy Everhart, Eliza Dresang, M.B. Kotrla and others have done much to challenge AR’s incentives system.
COMPETITION: The underlying element of competition is problematic. Many summer reading programs have eliminated the individual competitive aspect of their programs because of concerns if it live up to best practices. Yet, it seems, AR promotes this. As Everhart’s study shows, it does not appear that AR has taken into account the psychological impact of publicly tracking achievement and creating a competitive environment. As Everhart and others have shown, often times such competitions can actually lead to a disengagement with reading for many participants. Furthermore, when these competitions are tied to points and incentives, many students end up strategically reading many short, low-reading level books in order to accumulate more points, thus really challenging the goals of the program and the underlying motivations.
CONTENT: Further, AR promotes incentives while limiting the sources that can provide the student with those incentives. While AR has a huge database of books available, those that can earn incentives are much more limited. These numbers are further limited when settings are instilled to limit reading material to various reading levels. Many also feel that these assigned reading difficulty levels are arbitrary and do more to harm than to help. The result is that many children do not have the wealth of sources that the numerical database seems to promise. Furthermore, the gender distinctions that Everhart discusses are fascinating, and most often tied to content. Boys are reluctant to participate for fear of being seen as reading at low levels, much more so than girls. A lot of this is still tied to the limited content and the arbitrary designations that AR has built in to its program.
TESTING: Perhaps the biggest concern for me, though, is the testing dynamic of AR. In some schools the quizzes that AR provides are incorporated into student grading. On the surface, this seems to be reasonable, as time is being devoted to reading, so assessment should follow. However, a quick examination of those tests reveals the worst kind of assessment. As Dresang and Kotrla point out, rote memorization of book content is the only thing tested in AR quizzes. This places them at the base level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Comprehension, application, comparison, and analysis are utterly lacking. Rote memorization is NOT the best teaching practices of today.
I think we can see here why many experts have linked AR to success in NCLB testing. The flaws of NCLB have been detailed ad nauseum elsewhere, but the increased emphasis on quantifying results has led to more rote testing at lower levels of learning objectives. It is thus not surprising that AR and NCLB would correlate highly, as Dresang and Kotrla have found.
Overall, I still believe there can be value in these programs. They do encourage reading, and if we believe in the ability of summer reading to motivate (often through community incentive) then we have to recognize the capability that AR has to do some of the same work. That said, the materials and curriculum provided are lacking. They fail to promote good cognitive learning.
SOURCES: Eliza T. Dresang, and M. Bowie Kotrla, “School Libraries and the Transformation of Readers and Reading,” in Handbook of Research on Children's and Young Adult Literature, ed Wolf et al, Routledge, 2010.
Everhart, Nancy, “A Crosscultural Inquiry into the Levels of Implementation of Accelerated Reader and Its Effect on Motivation and Extent of Reading: Perspectives from Scotland and England” American Association of School Librarians, Accessed September 5, 2012, http://www.ala.org/aasl/aaslpubsandjournals/slmrb/slmrcontents/volume82005/reader.
 Eliza T. Dresang, and M. Bowie Kotrla, “School Libraries and the Transformation of Readers and Reading,” in Handbook of Research on Children's and Young Adult Literature, ed Wolf et al, Routledge, 2010.