Reading by the Numbers
Illustration by Ahl & Company
At back-to-school night last fall, I was prepared to ask my daughter’s eighth-grade language arts teacher about something that had been bothering me immensely: the rise of Accelerated Reader, a “reading management” software system that helps teachers track student reading through computerized comprehension tests and awards students points for books they read based on length and difficulty, as measured by a scientifically researched readability rating. When the teacher announced during the class presentation that she refused to use the program, I almost ran up and hugged her.
Accelerated Reader, introduced in 1986, is currently used in more than 75,000 schools, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The Web site for Renaissance Learning, which owns the program, describes it as a way to build “a lifelong love of reading and learning.” As a novelist and mother of three passionate readers, I’m all for that. But when I looked closer at how the program helps “guide students to the right books,” as the Web site puts it, I was disheartened.
Many classic novels that have helped readers fall in love with story, language and character are awarded very few points by Accelerated Reader. “My Antonia” is worth 14 points, and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” 13. The previous school year, my daughter had complained that some of her reading choices that I thought were pretty audacious — long, well-written historical novels like Libba Bray’s “Great and Terrible Beauty” and Lisa Klein’s “Ophelia,” recommended by her college-age sister — were worth only 14 points each. “Sense and Sensibility” is worth 22.
“You have to read the Harry Potter books” she said, exasperated. “They have all the points.”
She was right. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” topped out at 44 points, while “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” were worth 34 and 32.
I puzzled over this system. Yes, I had to do the math. To reach her school’s required 50 points of outside reading per trimester, my daughter could read “The Order of the Phoenix” and then “I Like It Like That,” a Gossip Girl novel worth 8 points. (The Accelerated Reader synopsis: “Enter the world of Gossip Girl and watch the girls drown in luxury while indulging in their favorite sports — jealousy, betrayal and late-night bar-hopping.”)
Unfortunately, her other sister, then a high school senior in a rigorous Advanced Placement literature course, would be way behind. For the whole year, she was assigned “Frankenstein” (17 points), “The Remains of the Day” (13 points), “Heart of Darkness” (a measly 10 points), “The Dharma Bums” (not listed in the system) and “Hamlet” (7 points). Yes, “Hamlet” was worth fewer points than the fifth installment of the Gossip Girl series.
One day last spring, after my eighth-grade daughter finished reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” (assigned reading for class), she sat on the couch, thoughtful and silent for a long time. Then she looked over at me and said: “I think that was one of the best books I’ve ever read. And not everybody could understand it. But I do. Especially Tom Robinson.”
Her father is 6-foot-4, 300 pounds and black. We talked about how American society has historically projected racial fear onto innocent men, and about how Harper Lee portrayed the town of Maycomb so vividly that you could see the streets and porches.
Curious, I asked, “What are your three favorite novels of all time?”
“ ‘Hoot,’ ‘Ophelia’ and this one,” she said. (“Hoot” was Carl Hiaasen’s book, which she and I had both read and loved two years earlier.)
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is worth 15 points.
Librarians and teachers report that students will almost always refuse to read a book not on the Accelerated Reader list, because they won’t receive points. They base their reading choices not on something they think looks interesting, but by how many points they will get. The passion and serendipity of choosing a book at the library based on the subject or the cover or the first page is nearly gone, as well as the excitement of reading a book simply for pleasure. This is not all the fault of Renaissance Learning, which I believe is trying to help schools encourage students to read. Defenders of the program say the problem isn’t with Accelerated Reader itself, but with how it is often implemented, with the emphasis on point-gathering above all else. But when I looked at Renaissance Learning’s Web site again this summer, I noticed the tag line under the company name: “Advanced Technology for Data-Driven Schools.” That constant drive for data is all too typical in the age of No Child Left Behind, helping to replace a freely discovered love of language and story with a more rigid way of reading.
Not long ago, I went back and re-reread three of my own favorite books of all time, books that made me into a writer. They introduced me to my heroines, girls who grew up in real hardship in vibrantly rendered landscapes that I had never seen before. Anne, in “Anne of Green Gables,” made me understand friendship and “kindred spirits” and imagination. Francie, in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” made me ache at the injustice of having a charming alcoholic father (his suit drying green after he falls into the bay while fishing) and a mother who cannot love her as much as she loves her more handsome brother. And Nel, the quieter half of the inimitable pair of friends in “Sula,” made me feel the way girls love each other intensely in childhood, captured in the precise and lovely language of lines like this: “We were two throats and one eye and we had no price.”
Total points for my three favorite books: 49.
Many teachers say Accelerated Reader has increased reading among students, who like the process of collecting points and the prizes schools sometimes give to students who collect the most. I have certainly seen the excitement at my daughter’s former elementary school when winners were announced. But as a writer and mother of three girls who love novels, I find the idea that we can apply a numerical formula to reading a bit insulting to literature. I’m not against all quantifying. But as Renaissance Learning itself emphasizes, Accelerated Reader’s formula cannot measure “literary merit for individual readers.” It cannot consider emotion and landscape and character, and certainly can’t identify what makes even some of the simplest-seeming sentences so complex and lovely and painful.
How can we really measure this passage about Helen Burns, the companion in “Jane Eyre” who will shortly die of tuberculosis? “. . . a beauty neither of fine color, nor long eyelash, nor penciled brow, but of meaning, of movement, of radiance. Then her soul sat on her lips, and language flowed.”
“Jane Eyre” is worth 33 points.
And nothing can measure how a young life can be changed by literature. It can be a small change — like understanding more about someone from a different race or period or culture — or a complete change, as happened to me when I read the stories of Anne, Francie and Sula and decided I could be a writer, so that people would know my own world.