Why Read Shakespeare When Clancy Can Get You a Pizza Party?
Critics Say Reading Program Disregards Classics

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007

Montgomery County parent Brad German likes just about anything that encourages kids to read. But he can't understand why a reading program used in his child's North Bethesda Middle School awards a student more points for reading a Nancy Drew mystery than William Shakespeare's "Macbeth."

Accelerated Reader, by Renaissance Learning Inc., the largest supplemental reading program in the United States, is used in nearly 60,000 schools across the country. The company provides computer software that allows teachers to quiz kids on their comprehension of 100,000 books -- which students select themselves -- and assigns a readability formula that determines grade level and difficulty.

Under the formula, the complicated and violent "Macbeth" earns a reader four points, and the Nancy Drew mystery "The Picture of Guilt" is worth five points. Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park" is worth 20 points; Tom Clancy's voluminous "Executive Orders," 78 points.

"Macbeth," the story of a man's lust for power, is given a book level of 10.9, meaning that it is understandable by 10th or 11th grade. Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Beloved," which depicts a mother choosing to kill her daughter rather than see her enslaved, is given a book level of 6.0, appropriate for sixth grade. It is worth 15 points.

Advocates say critics don't understand the intricacies of the program and that some schools haven't implemented it properly -- failing to provide students and parents with all the information available about a book.

That includes something called an interest level, which places "Beloved" in the upper grades even though its text has been deemed to be accessible to sixth-graders. Accelerated Reader listings often fail to show the interest level.

The 20-year-old program has drawn raves from some teachers and principals who say it helps them monitor students' supplemental-reading progress. Many schools have incorporated the program into their regular day, providing time for independent reading and giving students incentives -- pizza parties and other prizes -- to meet individual reading goals.

"What I see is that the kids really get excited about reading," said Principal Christopher Wynne of Greenwood Elementary School in Montgomery County, where nearly all third- and fourth-graders participate in the program. At Greenwood, kids who meet their reading goals get treats, such as book markers and low-key celebrations.

But to German and other parents, the levels and points give kids a disincentive to read the classics. He said he is stumped by why the highest-scoring Shakespeare play, "Hamlet," is given half the value of the lowest-scoring Tom Clancy novel.

"I can fully appreciate the need to encourage kids to read with the help of contemporary authors. . . . But whenever you put the classics at a disadvantage to what is being sold at the airport book stand, you are not meeting some fundamental obligation of an educational institution, which is in part to separate the wheat from the chaff in our culture," German said.

There have been several studies of Accelerated Reader by independent researchers over the years, with mixed results. Some studies show organized reading programs have positive effects on reading scores. But some researchers say the testing and rewards associated with Accelerated Reader help perpetuate the "high stakes" testing atmosphere fueling education today.

Accelerated Reader gives point and reading levels to books by using a readability formula that measures texts for difficulty of words, length and other features, said Laurie Borkon, a spokeswoman for Renaissance Learning.

It does, she said, "intrinsically encourage" students to choose longer books because point values are higher.

Other readability formulas used by publishers and educators to measure text also use length as well as word difficulty.

Formula results can often be found on the back of books, especially paperbacks. If, for example, a book says RL: 4.2, it generally means the text is for early fourth-graders. Of course, the same book published by different publisher could have a different reading level.

Borkon said readability formulas cannot measure every important element of a book, including context or difficulty of the material. They can't even measure whether a work is coherent, according to a report on readability formulas issued by Renaissance Learning.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address would be rated "exactly equal" on readability formulas if the exact same text were read backward, according to the report.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," would be equivalent to: "Equal created are men all that proposition the to dedicated and liberty in conceived, nation new a continent this upon forth brought fathers our ago years seven and score four."

That, Borkon said, is why the quizzes that measure comprehension are so important to Accelerated Reader. And that is why some booksellers and buyers say they don't look at reading levels.

"We don't pay attention to that a bit," said Morgan McMillian, children's department bookseller at the independent bookstore Politics and Prose in the District. "We determine where to put the books after we read them ourselves."

Award-winning author Louis Sachar said he finds readability formulas somewhat off the mark. His "Small Steps" for fourth-graders earns a reader 7 points. And "There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom" earns third-graders 5 points.

Sachar, who has written more than 20 fiction and educational books, said he was surprised that "Small Steps" was targeted by Accelerated Reader for fourth-graders because he believes it is well-received by children from fourth through eighth grade.

Told that Accelerated Reader had assigned "Small Steps" one more point than "Macbeth," he said: "They have a strange formula. Obviously it takes a lot more work to read Shakespeare than it takes to read my books."

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