Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Kids Are Reading - Questioning the Data

I have been working on a post about Accelerated Reader.  It was not planned as a post criticizing AR, but rather my thoughts as a teacher surviving in a school which incorporates AR into their reading program.  Yesterday I came across a tweet about a post on the Renaissance Learning blog.  My AR post will have to wait because this one needs to be written first.

Renaissance Learning published the 2015 edition of "What Kids Are Reading and Why It Matters."  If you have not seen this, then I encourage you to look at it quickly before reading more. The beginning of the document explains how reading skill acquisition is closely related to daily practice and reading volume.  I don't think any teacher would argue with that point.  

But as I read more, a red flag went up because this data comes only from students who use AR.  I find this interesting.

 Mining data on daily independent reading practice and achievement from millions of students who use Accelerated Reader allows us to address important questions about independent reading practice, including what makes it so vital for helping children become successful readers.

According to their own research, there are three variables to independent reading which influence reading growth: comprehension, volume, and challenge.  I would agree with this.  They also state:

When we examine less skilled or struggling readers, we see that those who read a lot of appropriately challenging books at high comprehension tended to experience accelerated growth throughout the school year and thus close gaps. (Bold print is my emphasis.)

What they call challenging text is one part of their research which concerns me.  I believe in challenging my students, but how does one define challenging text?   How do we decide which books are appropriately challenging?  Do we go by AR reading levels?  Do we go by the number of points assigned to a book, or do we go by professional judgement?

It is my understanding that AR defines challenge by ZPD or a range of recommended reading levels for students.  According to the reports from AR that I use in my classroom, a student's ZPD ranges below and slightly above the grade equivalency.  For example, I have a student at a 6.2 grade equivalency, but her ZPD is 4.1 to 6.3.  How does this play into appropriately challenging text?  Is the majority of challenging text below their grade equivalency?  Do we take into consideration the maturity level of the student when determining challenging text?

This report also includes a "bona fide list of popular books kids are reading by grade and gender."  As I read this, I remembered this data was coming only from the students who use the AR program and who took a test.  It does not include non AR readers or readers who chose the book simply for enjoyment.  Yes, the red flag was waving.

I moved down to the top 25 most popular books by grade level.  Since I teach 6th grade, I went to that list first.  It was no surprise that several books from The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series were on the list as well as Harry Potter, because those books are popular in my classroom too.

I then began looking at the AR reading levels.  They say that challenge is important to reading growth, but not one book on the list was above 5.7 for 6th grade.  I am not saying those books are not challenging for my students, because many of them are.  I am just questioning the data and find it interesting.

I believe independent reading should be for enjoyment first and foremost.  Because of this, my students are not strictly tied to reading levels.  I only use them as guidelines and not requirements.

According to AR levels, this book and all of the books in this series

ATOS reading level 5.2

 are at a higher level than this book.

ATOS reading level 4.8

That is why I don't pay much attention to their book levels.  Again, I am only questioning their data and their definition of challenging books.

Looking at the high school average book levels, two things from the report puzzled me.  One was the average book levels for each high school grade.

9th grade - 5.5
10th grade - 5.6
11th grade - 5.6
12 grade - 6.7

Again, they say challenge is important, but all of these average book levels are well below grade level.  The only reason why the 12th grade was so high was because it included Frankenstein, Hamlet, and Macbeth which are all above 10.9.  I don't focus solely on book levels, but this data raises many questions about their claim that challenge is important.

This leads me to the second part of this data which puzzles me.  Several classic books made the top 25 on the most popular lists for high school.  To me, popular means the books kids want to read.  I had to ask myself, how many of these classics were assigned reading and students had to take the AR test.  If you think about how many high schools read these as assigned texts, then of course they are going to show up on the most popular list. That does not mean students chose them or enjoyed reading them.  It simply means they took the test.

I know AR is a controversial subject, and many do not agree with me.  I am OK with that.  I respect all opinions, but this report should prompt valuable and much needed conversations among teachers who use AR and should also cause teachers to ask questions about the data put out by Renaissance Learning.

My next post will be about surviving in the AR world.  In the meantime, happy reading!

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