Nancy Drew outpoints Macbeth

Due to a oddly configured “readability” formula, the popular Accelerated Reader program gives more points to a student for reading a Nancy Drew mystery than reading Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” If kids really want enough points to earn a pizza party, they’ll read a long, point-rich Tom Clancy novel.

Accelerated Reader provides software that quizzes students on their comprehension of books they’ve chosen for themselves from the school library, explains the Washington Post. There are quizzes for 100,000 books. Students get points based on the difficulty of the book. But the “readability” formula produces odd results, partly because length is equated with 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.

I’ve heard very good things from teachers about Accelerated Reader, though it doesn’t work if the school doesn’t supply enough books for students to choose from.

But to (Brad) 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.

That seems like a fixable problem. Give fewer points for length and more for complex language.

The Post includes an odd paragraph.

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.

This seems to say that AR helps students read better. That’s good. The “mixed” result is that it encourages them to value doing well on tests. That doesn’t seem so bad to me. I also question whether earning enough points to get a class pizza party is “high stakes,” even to a kid.

Many schools now make time for a daily period for students to read independently. Or to stare blankly at a page. Accelerated Reader gives them an incentive to read and checks their comprehension. Not many students are choosing “Macbeth” over Nancy Drew — nor would they with more points for Shakespeare — but they’re reading.

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  1. Here in our school system AR is used extensively. Kids must get a minimum amount of points per grading period (elementary and middle school). The main complaint I have is that my kids don’t want to read anything that doesn’t belong to the AR program. It reduces reading to the lowest common denominator. I have kids that read a lot, but the love of competition really drives them. My youngest son got the award for the most points in the 3rd grade last year. It’s probably good for non-readers, however. I guess I’m just quibbling!

  2. Several years ago, I recall a study being done of adults who enjoy reading, read a lot, and have high reading comprehension. Looking at what these adults read as children, they expected heavy classics, and instead found that many of them read sports and adventure books, taudry romances, and other commercial fiction.

    I read comic books and fantasy novels as a kid. At 34, I now can’t get enough of the classics. I even got some friends and neighbors started by recommending some books to them (Middlemarch, Howard’s End, and Everything That Rises Must Converge).

    It’s fine if they read MacBeth, though the important thing is getting them to read and enjoy enough to keep reading, and Clancy might be better at that. Besides, Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed and watched, not read (only slightly more fun than studying the score to a Beethoven symphony and never listening to it). Now if they read it out loud while acting the parts (violent and raunchy scenes included), that could be fun.

  3. I had AR in various grades, namely 2,4, and 7 from what I remember. While the list was fairly adequate, I don’t recall any Tom Clancy or any other popular adult-fiction on the list, but this was, um, nearly ten years ago. It seemed to me at the time the list was more focused on “chick-lit” such Little Women and the Victorian-Era Spoiled Rich Girls books that held little appeal for younger boys. That may have been a factor resulting in girls usually having more points than boys.

    Also, if I ever run across Heidi, that little girl is getting pushed off a cliff. Awful, awful book; not even worth the points.

  4. wayne martin says:

    Accelerated Reader:

  5. Catch Thirty Thr33 says:

    I had always enjoyed reading, but what brought me into the world of reading fiction was Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising”. (I still get misty-eyed thinking of that novel. I so enjoyed that book…I still have the paperback version I bought way back when.) Now I enjoy things like “MacBeth” and “Hamlet”, and other such gems. The “classics” will be gotten around to in due course; let the kids experiment and go through the “formative” ohase where they discover what they like and don’t like.
    Also note that what are classics to one are not to another. For one thing, I have NEVER understood the gushing of English teachers over Dickens. He has to be the most grossly oveerated novelist in English. Shakespeare? He is the most underrated.:-)

  6. fyi: I read this blog and moved on to investigate getting this program to motivate my homeschoolers to read. There were no appropriate links on the website, and therefore I called. No such luck! It is for schools only, although I discovered they once did have the program for homeschoolers but discontinued.

    Perhaps there were too many challenges? or Challengers?

    I wrote about it here:

  7. I have also had problems with getting my kids to read books not on the AR list too. Hubby’s mom gave us two bags of awesome books, many of his favorites, that he can’t get the kids to read because they won’t get credit for them. We were able to look up that “Trapped in Death Cave” and “Wait Til Helen Comes” were listed and THEN they read those – and enjoyed them immensely.

    We’ve also have had good laughs at the ratings for the books. Recently a Beverly Clearly book was listed as a higher level book than The Black Stallion. 🙂 Since “Socks” was listed as a high-level book, my son was absolutely adamant that he couldn’t read it and wasn’t allowed to read it. The reverse has also happened when my daughter gave up reading one of her favorite series, “Junie B. Jones”, because it was below her grade level and she wasn’t allowed to get it.

    My kids also have a little more difficulty with the non-fiction tests because the questions are harder, more factual based rather than general storyline based. This has scared some kids away from taking those tests because they don’t get full points and some teachers average the grades received.

    Overall, I think it’s a good program and helps the teacher and the parent get an accurate picture of how much their child is reading. I can’t really think of a better way to do it.