By Derek Boucher
Last week, a friend of our family came to us distraught after her child, a student in the Clovis Uniﬁed School District, read the adolescent favorite "The Name of This Book is Secret." Despite having a very positive experience with the book, she failed her school's Accelerated Reader comprehension test.
This resulted in a lowering of her English grade. Accelerated Reader is a popular, expensive commercial program used in many of our schools today. Last year, we learned of another child who was discouraged by a librarian from reading Hemingway's classic "The Old Man and the Sea" because it was considered too low for that child's reading level.
As we transition into another school year, parents throughout Clovis Uniﬁed and other Valley schools have been notiﬁed that a portion of their child's English grade will be determined by completing novels, and answering narrow comprehension questions online about the story.
The concept is simple: Pass the online test and the student gets points that go toward their grade. No points are awarded if the student fails the test. Fail the test, and no retakes are allowed. This program is very convenient for teachers who simply upload the AR points from the computer and translate them into a grade. No fuss, no mess!
But this is so typical in today's schools, where lust for high standardized test scores and short-term gains often overshadow the more important and difﬁcult work of creating curious learners and life-long readers.
One might assume that adults with long résumés might ask the question: What is the long-term impact of this program on our children?
Different studies suggest that incentive programs (reading to get prizes or a grade) tend to have a deleterious effect on young readers. When the incentives (or punishments) to read stop, the children stop reading as well. This shouldn't be surprising, since performance and learning tend to decline when extrinsic motivators are present (Kohn, 1999).
In most schools today, reading has not been presented to children as an inherently pleasurable experience, but as a vehicle to get a prize or a grade.
Voracious readers understand that literature allows us to lose ourselves in the world of a story. Avid readers engage in intensely enjoyable experiences with plot and characters.
In contrast, programs like Accelerated Reader teach students to read literature in a superﬁcial manner. Students read with a mind to skim for the facts they will need for the quiz, which is very different from the thoughtful engagement we want to see when our children open a book. One parent shared with me he is going to buy Cliff's Notes so his child will be sure to pass his next AR test.
A study by Carter (1996) suggests that incentive programs create a system where "the rich get richer." Children who are already strong readers will usually do quite well on comprehension tests. In contrast, resistant readers become demoralized when, after struggling through a book, they are left with zero points because they failed their AR test. This reinforces their perception that reading is not for them.
Here's a challenge to educators who favor Accelerated Reader. Choose any piece of literature you like. Ask a friend to read the same book. After reading, create 15 comprehension questions. Quiz one another. Don't cheat! You can't refer back to the book, and you can't discuss what you enjoyed about the story. (Too subjective!) And, you only get one try. Now repeat the process 10-15 times in nine months. See how you like it.
Derek Boucher of Clovis teaches science at Roosevelt High School.
Kindergarten has changed radically in the past two decades. New research in Los Angeles and New York shows what is happening in today’s full-day kindergartens:
• 2–3 hours per day of literacy and math instruction and testingThese practices may produce higher scores in first and second grade, but at what cost? Long-term studies suggest that the early gains fade away by fourth grade and that by age 10 children in play-based kindergartens excel over others in reading, math, social and emotional learning, creativity, oral expression, industriousness, and imagination.
• Of that, 20–30 minutes per day of standardized testing and test preparation
• Less than 30 minutes per day—and often no time at all—for play or choice time
Developmentally inappropriate practices are putting young children’s health and academic progress at risk. It is time for a change.
Contact: The Alliance for Childhood