Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My thoughts on AR Quizzes

I've been storing these thoughts up for a while, letting them rattle around, and I'm still not 100% certain I want to post about this yet. I've been thinking about Accelerated Reader Quizzes which are owned and run by Renaissance Learning, Inc. They're increasingly popular in schools. Kids read books, and then sign online to take a quiz. Enough successfully completed quizzes will accrue them points, and then they can spend points on prizes provided by their school. There usually are AR parties, hosted several times a year for kids who have maintained a certain level of success with the program.

Despite the expense, it's a very, very attractive package for schools to use. It quickly and easily sorts books by reading level and provides a nearly instantaneous level of feedback for administrators. They use a system called ATOS, similar to reading lexile to determine the difficulty of each book. Educators can log in and immediately pinpoint what classes, districtwide, have comprehension or vocabulary problems. Parents can log in and get several charts and graphs, displaying their child's accomplishments.

Ordinarily, I might not worry overmuch about what happens in schools. Sure, I want to support what homework kids might be doing, and educating everyone (including teachers!) about the difference between "the internet" and "databases" is a constant struggle. But, on the whole, I see the public library as an ideal place for pleasure reading - for people to turn their minds to what interests them. There's a real benefit to that. Taking a break from serious study refreshes the mind. When kids and teens have the chance to explore their own interests, they're more invested, and keeping involved at the public library (especially over the summer) has been shown to improve students skills. But, AR Quizzes are on my mind more and more, because they're growing increasingly ubiquitous, and the demand for them is beginning to encroach on what I do.

There are a couple of kids I helped at the library recently who especially stuck out in my mind. Probably the most heartbreaking was a little girl and her mother who came to me looking for suggestions for remedial reading - the girl hadn't gotten to go to any AR Quiz parties at her school that year, but she had high hopes that if she did a little better she'd make it next year. Wow! This was a child who sincerely enjoyed reading - maybe she was a little behind her grade level, but she wasn't what you'd call a "reluctant reader" - someone who finds reading difficult or a chore. She was still in high spirits, and frequently read for pleasure. I wondered how long it might take for that to change in the face of repeated messages that she was a failure.

I also particularly remember a kid who was energetically telling me about all the reading she'd done that week. She raced through five books and had aced the AR Quizzes for all of them! When I congratulated her, and asked her which were her favorites, she blithely assured me that she didn't remember any of them - she didn't need to, now that she'd finished the quiz. Wow. Will she be a lifelong reader? I somehow kind of doubt it. After all, with no quiz, or points to motivate her, why would she ever pick up a book? She seemed to enjoy reading in the same Skinnerian way that you might enjoy racking up points on a boring, easy, pointless video game. In my mind, that hardly counts as enjoying reading at all.

Finally, I worked with a boy this past week who was looking to stock up on chapter books for the holiday break. With his smartphone at the ready, he checked each book I recommended, and dismissed 4 or 5 of them out of hand when he didn't find them on arbookfind.com, or when they came up as "not on his level."

I've had hurried parents ask me why we don't shelve books by their AR level, as opposed to by author or by Dewey Decimal number, and I've had many requests to begin labeling our books with the AR book level prominent on the spine, as many school libraries currently do. That alone seems like a monumental task involving considerable expense in office supplies and staff time. It's not something that I'd look forward to doing, especially considering it's a proprietary system, owned by one company.

Last summer my library participated in a pilot program where we offered AR Quizzes at the branch (normally, they are only available at school) and barring any unusual circumstance, we will probably offer them next summer. I have my concerns though... last year the library got access to the quizzes for free, through the auspices of the local school that had a contract with Renaissance Learning. What will happen if and when Renaissance Learning asks the library for money to continue funding the ability to take quizzes at the library? What will happen if and and when the library discontinues carrying the quizzes, and then must cope with an outpouring of complaints from parents who demand the service?

Despite my concerns, public libraries exist to meet the needs of our communities. If people want AR Quizzes, if they're excited about them, we'll try to provide them. I can't begin to number the times that I've helped a parent by showing them how to use the arbookfind website - how grateful, even gleeful they were to have access to such a great tool. I've even seen aspiring authors use the AR website to gauge how to assess what level their unpublished books might be considered, and how to accordingly pitch their manuscripts.

Like it or not, AR Quizzes seem like they're here to stay for a while. I'm keeping a curious and cautious eye on how public libraries will continue to respond to the demand that they create.

7 comments:

  1. Oh, now you've done it. I can feel the rise in my blood pressure. Don't get me started..I've seen all of the scenarios you've mentioned and more. I believe their hearts are in the right place... but it takes SO much training and consistency to run this program correctly,, that I don't think the theory will ever match the practice. I could go on but I won't....

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  2. As a person who grew up taking AR Quizzes I absolutely love the program. I think as kids we are often rewarded constantly for non-academic things such as being good at sports, playing instruments, making the cheerleader squad and so on. I'm happy to see a program that positively enforces reading. And it isn't perfect, there will be some that are doing it for the wrong reasons or avid readers that don't get large number of points. With so me non or reluctant readers around, I am glad to see students reading even if they don't remember them at the end.

    Reading has so many benefits and it is so difficult to get students to do it. When I was teaching, I would have loved to have my students interested in a program like this. Unfortunately, money wouldn't even make them read outside of class.

    In my opinion reading is rarely rewarded. I'm glad to see a program that does it even if it isn't perfect.

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  3. Our school just started AR this year and we're trying to prevent these scenarios. We have no prizes or awards. No goals, even. I'm in charge of my son's Kindergarten classroom (we have 5 emergent readers, including my reading son). We'll see what happens. Thank you so much for a view from the "other" side!!!
    -Kristin @myparahangover

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  4. @Annette - Thanks so much for your comment! It means a lot! I think AR, in and of itself is not bad... but it's crept into every corner of students' lives. They literally have NO FREE TIME. NO time for anything fun. It's all test, test, test, prep, prep, prep.
    Conversely, I see lower-income students who have NOTHING BUT free time! And it's not always used constructively! There HAS TO BE a happy medium between these two extremes!

    @Kristin - Interesting! I wonder what AR would look and feel like if the points accrued were just that - only points. I see so many kids overhyped about this. They live and breathe AR quizzes, because it's been made into such a big deal!

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  5. @Alexis - Well, yes, that's it. That's it exactly. Any reading at all can be considered "good" and I don't doubt that lots of kids who wouldn't otherwise be reading are making more of an effort.

    It's weird how I used to decry the fact that Harry Potter was so big that EVERYONE was reading it, whether they were old enough to "get it" or not. And now I feel like I'm doing the opposite, when I talk to kids who I think would love it, but they haven't tackled it yet, because AR told them not to.

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  6. One of the things I talk about with my kids is that a "good fit" book varies with how much you want to read it. So if it's a book you really want to read (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Nancy Drew), then even if it is several levels too high you can read it. On the other hand, if you are being forced to read a book, it's a lot easier if it is a few steps down because your mind will drag along while reading it.

    Our school libraries has a lot of the colored stickers which I think are AR based, but the kids are also taught to self-select what is a "good fit." At home, I made sure a lot of shared-reading time was available while the kids were reading "up."

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  7. We don't have these quizzes in my area. This is actually the first I'm hearing about them. It sounds like it might be a nice idea in theory, but in reality there seem to be a lot of unintended consequences.

    I'm always frustrated with the way school affects kids' reading habits. In my library I have two types of kids: The kind who LOVE to read...but rarely come in during the school year because they have too much school work and no free time. During the summers they're here almost every day and checking out stacks of books (and reading all of them!), but during the school year, maybe I'll see them once every month or so. If that.

    The other kind of kids are the ones I ONLY see during the school year. They don't like reading at all, pretty much because the only books they've ever read are "boring" books for class assignments. I would love to give them books I know they'd enjoy, but they're not readers and the idea of adding MORE reading to their schedule terrifies them.

    The teachers in my area assign horrible books that really turn off a lot of kids. Or, I should say, they assign inappropriate books for their students. I had a 12 year old boy come in the other day looking for Rebecca. Now, I love Rebecca, but I'm not a 12 year old boy. He looked like I was handing him a vial of small pox when I gave him the book.

    I almost wish schools would just stop trying to manage kids' reading. Or let them pick their own books instead of forcing them to read books they don't want to read. I guess that's where something like the AR Quizzes come in, but, I don't know, your observations aren't selling me on AR Quizzes. I'll stop babbling now. :)

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