For many parents who have children in a public elementary school, you will have become aware of the Accelerated Reader program. My husband and I first became keenly aware of it when our fifth grader came home in tears because she had to stay behind and read while the rest of her class was treated to a "rewards party" at a popular park.
After a lengthy interview, we divined that there was a complex set of reading guidelines and points that had to be achieved by a certain time frame in order to qualify for the reward. We hadn't been adequately monitoring the process, and although she had read many books, the points failed to add up to the desired goal. Since one of our daughter's greatest strengths is her reading ability, we were chagrined that she was suffering in this area of her schooling.
We were determined to nail this sucker. The following trimester (yes, that's what they're called), we found out what her goal was supposed to be. We set about finding out which of the books she already owned were in the database and how many points they were worth. Most of her favorite fiction titles were in the AR database, even books that were newly published. When it came to science, however, the quantity and reading level of books plummeted.
While the guidelines we had been given earlier that year specifically recommended broadening reading topics to include a diversity of genres and topics, science was notably thin. She had just received The Magic of Reality as a present and despite quite a bit of publicity, the book was nowhere on their list. Could it be because of its controversial presentation of scientific answers to age old human questions? In my reading, I thought the myths (which include Judeo-Christian stories) were given a respectful and interesting presentation and the scientific explanations were riveting and well illustrated. Our daughter read out loud in rapt attention and enjoyed the book. Still, when she found out it wasn't worth any "points," she laid it aside in favor of a new sci-fi series featuring an overbearing government that arranges marriages, a series that was worth points.
The same deficit was encountered when it came to books on history of any kind. Aside from a few military histories, there were hardly any history titles. When her social studies class was studying Columbus, our daughter noticed that she owned a history book which also covered Columbus from another point of view. The book was "A Young People's History of the United States." It covered some little discussed facts of the period such as the enslavement of the indigenous people of the Caribbean islands when no gold could be discovered to cover and justify the expense of the expedition. While she was interested in reading on into the two volume set, these books were not in the database and were not worth any points.
Sensing a pattern, I went to the AR website and tried to figure out what their criteria was for adding books. Supposedly, they rely on input from school librarians and book reviews. I filled out some recommendation forms and supplied links to positive book reviews for the books that I thought would make a positive contribution to their lists. The site wasn't designed to encourage parents' input, but I input it anyway, in protest, if for no other reason.
To be clear, I have nothing against literature. I was an English major with a concentration in writing fiction and studied poetry at the graduate level. Still, I am dismayed at how the supposed "Accelerated" Reader narrows the range of reading material to "safe" topics and pushes fiction at a ratio of something like 30 to 1 if not worse
There were few biographies included in the AR database, still fewer biographies of women or minorities. There were no social or labor histories at all. Art? Music? Dance? The older the reader, the fewer titles to be found within any part of the non-fiction range. A wide range of material should include science at grade level. It should include a variety of historical perspectives and periods, not just another history of Fighter Jets of World War II. Young students are being steered away from developing their critical faculties and toward the consumption of genre fiction.
AR does not provide much range of intellectual material at all among their qualified books and this should give public educators, parents, and students pause. Learning to read should not just be an act of absorbing the culture. It should be an act of learning to think and to consider other points of view.
It doesn't surprise me that a private corporation doesn't seem to be open to controversial reading material, material that questions religion or establishment views of history. The pressure to sell as many AR systems as possible promotes the likelihood that they will shape their product so as to not to make waves at religious private schools or other narrowly focused institutions. Those decisions end up affecting a very large proportion of public school children. With those kinds of incentives, we should be asking whether this type of system is really contributing to our children's education. Education needs to be a collaborative and open process that involves parents, educators, and student input.
Other education critics have further pointed out that after paying the rent on the Accelerated Reader program, many school libraries have something like $12 left over to spend on actual books. In addition, the testing itself and its incentive program have not been studied enough to prove any conclusive educational benefit. It's time for students, parents, and communities, including educators and librarians to question the imposition of the AR program and demand more diversity in the curriculum and credit for students who make the effort to read and learn broadly, think critically, and work creatively.