A Teacher’s View: The Case Against Accelerated Reader — Why a List of Quizzes Should Not Dictate What Books My Students Can Choose

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A version of this essay originally appeared on the One Book at a Time blog.

When I first started in my current position as a middle school reading teacher, in the days before every student got a laptop to work on, I had one computer in my classroom (running Windows 98) that featured one prominent icon on the homepage — Accelerated Reader. Having been hired to teach reading, I figured this might prove to be vital to fulfilling my duties, and so, in one of my introductory mentor meetings, I questioned what exactly this “AR” entailed.

I was immediately given a great stack of photocopied pages, bound by metal rings. This tome was handed over with the reverence of a sacred text, the passing met with a confused and quizzical expression on my face. I was told this was the list of all our available Accelerated Reader quizzes, the vehicle by which we would assess whether our students were truly reading books on their own time (and, secondarily, whether they were understanding what they read).

In my mind’s eye, I picture my expression changing from one of confusion to one of disgust and disbelief as I was given the full explanation of how this AR system works.

“What happens if a student wants to read a book that isn’t on this list?” I questioned.

“Then it doesn’t count!” came the answer.

“How many of these quizzes are the kids supposed to complete a term?” Here the answers varied from two to four, the majority falling to the latter.

“How heavily should I weigh this?” Again, the answers varied, from a 100-point test to a 10-point quiz.

“What happens if the kids are doing poorly on these quizzes?”

“Then we know they are lying about reading!”

Even as a fledgling teacher, I felt something about this system didn’t sit right. Why were we limiting kids to books on a prescribed list determined by a set of quizzes the school had purchased? Was this some sort of gotcha game, where we were trying to prove students were not completing pleasure reading? Should independent reading be reduced to a score on a computerized assessment?

As time went on, my confidence in this system failed to grow. I saw the picayune questions focused on some of my favorite novels. I saw students who I knew had read and could discuss their novels fail this “measure” of their comprehension. And within my classroom, I responded accordingly. I reduced the point value of these quizzes within the larger scale to almost nil. I encouraged kids to read books not included on that hallowed list. I gave students alternative assignments to count for their independent reading requirement and signed slips in order to have these assignments “count” in their English classes.

When my principal finally decided to discontinue our subscription to the Accelerated Reader program at the end of last year, I (along with my students, their parents and our librarian) rejoiced. Unfortunately, not all of my colleagues are thrilled. Lamenting the loss of AR became a regular topic in our monthly department meetings, regardless of the agenda.

Faced with these complaints, I try (and try and try and try) to make my case against AR, citing the following reasons:

● Limited book choices — In order for a book to be included in AR, it needs to meet one criterion: A quiz has been created by Renaissance and purchased by the school. This designation has no reflection on the quality of the text, its reliability and relevance to our students, or its potential impact upon them as readers. When we require students to read books only from this list, we greatly limit the potential of them finding their next favorite read.

I am not the only one who feels this way. Check out the amazing Colby Sharp’s video voicing his opinion on AR.

● Irrelevant questions — Early on in my AR experience, I often had students complain about the questions they were faced with in regard to their novels. Being a middle school educator, I took these complaints with a grain of salt … until I was confronted with the assessment for The Outsiders. This classic is often the first novel that even my most resistant of readers will admit they enjoy.

During our reading of this book, we discuss many things as a class — which characters could be classified as heroes, whether people are perpetually limited by their social class and whether Greasers and Socs could ever truly be friends. With a plethora of themes and connections to focus upon, the creators of these quizzes decided that a relevant question to ask students would be what color eyes Ponyboy hates. Really, Renaissance Learning?

● Inauthentic reading experience — If our intention as educators is to create lifelong readers, “rewarding” students with the opportunity to take a computerized quiz at the end of a novel greatly misses the mark. As adults, when we have finished a phenomenal text, we talk about it with others. We lend the magical title to our friends. We may even share it on our social media accounts. At no time do we, as adult readers, scramble to complete 10 multiple choice questions as quickly as we can. I believe this time and focus can be better spent allowing students to talk about what they are reading and have read, sharing their questions and ideas, and becoming the readers we know they have the potential to be.

While I am far from naive enough to believe my arguments and experiences will be enough to change the mind of the staunchest of AR acolytes, I know that I am not alone in my assertions. Literacy gurus like Pernille Ripp, Colby Sharp and Donalyn Miller have all voiced their displeasure with this program and those like it. The tide is slowly, but surely, turning toward new possibilities and endless potential.

Beth Jarzabek is a veteran public school educator and a blogger who is pursuing a second master’s degree in teaching and leadership through Mount Holyoke College.

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