The inaccuracies of the What Children Are Reading Report

I’m all for stats, figures, data and reports but I have to say I’m really not impressed with the ‘independent’ research produced by Prof. Topping for Renaissance Learning and the Accelerated Reader programme.

Even if Prof Topping receives no remuneration for his work the data he uses comes exclusively from Renaissance Learning (RL herein). Throughout, for me there are a number of inconsistencies. Where any other report may introduce other theories rather than the single assumptions made on the data, this one sticks stalwart to its seemingly misguided assumptions. As with data it can be twisted and manipulated to give any picture someone may want. Data is subjective. It’s its very nature.

The first point I’d like to raise is the title of the report and the statements made at the beginning. This report, it states, is important because it is actually based entirely on what young people are reading.

I have two problems with this. 1. It is firstly misleading because what they are saying is that it is what young people are reading based in schools doing Accelerated Reading (AR herein). A small omission but one that changes the picture of the results entirely. There are more schools in the country not involved with AR than there are that use the system. Straight away in any report failing to state this it would prick my annoyance button and leave me not valuing any results or assumptions made, or at least questioning them.
2. The second point is that the AR system cannot 100% confirm that the books are being read. If you are unfamiliar with the system then the data that the report is based on is through the quizzes (tests) that students take after having ‘read’ a book. Now, the assumption here is that every quiz taken shows that the taker has read the book. If, this were true, then I could forgive them if they only used the data from the quizzes that were successfully passed (if a student fails in the quiz then this is a good indication that they haven’t read the book – although this brings numerous questions into play. If a student fails with the comprehension part of answering questions this doesn’t mean they haven’t read the book!) however lets argue this case. The assumption then is that to pass the quiz you have to have read the book. Well, this isn’t actually the case. Although RL will tell you that the quiz writing part is the thing that makes this work (knowing someone who has written for them I also know what they have to do!) There is still a very good chance that you do not need to read the book to pass the quiz.

Just from this small point there are already too many questions around how the data received can be seen as ‘correct’ or valuable.

This is not all.

Throughout the report many things are highlighted. At the very beginning under the category ‘book difficulty’ it states that the difficulty in the books read increases with age but not in line with the increases in chronological ages. In other words young people aren’t reading books that are in line to their ages.
Again two points. 1. Reading for pleasure is about allowing young people to read whatever books they want to read as long as they are engaged and enjoying them. By stating that a young person can only read a book within a certain age range goes against everything that a library ( where most AR in schools is run through) tries to promote. This isn’t reading for pleasure by any stretch of the imagination. 2. levelling books is such a ‘dirty’ and imprecise science. Text analysis such as SMOG analysis is impossible to give you a proper picture of readability and anyone having used AR will acknowledge that there are many ‘weird’ levels given to some books that should be a lot harder and others that are a lot easier. For instance The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien has an ATOS level of 6.1 yet HP and the Deathly Hallows is 6.9. There is no way in a million years this can be true. Fellowship, just for its nonsensical words made up from characters names alone makes it a lot harder book without taking into account the themes, dialogue and intensity of the plot, sub plots and the massive number of characters. The failure of readability is that it doesn’t take any comprehensive nature of a book into account.
On top of all this the whole age banding of books in a school library brings many many questions and concerns into play (too many for this post).

Higher achieving readers, it states, especially in secondary schools, sees a definite drop in difficulty of the books they are reading. I think this brings into question the fact of trying to produce a one size fits all intervention. It is a common problem and misguided view that you should try and fit the student into the intervention rather than changing the intervention to fit the student. We might assume then the high ability readers (intelligent students) realise that if they read books they find easier they can read more of them, get more correctly passed tests and therefore more rewards. Or that they are not taking it seriously and so only paying lip service to the programme, perhaps?
Weaker readers are the next to be interrogated and the data shows that in yr7 weaker readers choose easy books and then in yr8,9 more mainstream books. For someone that has worked with young people and researched their reading for too many years I can see the exact reasons for this. In yr7 students will want to get the success of passing the tests, they want to feel they are achieving something and this will be the driving features.
As they get older many other factors come into play, things such as peer pressure, perception of their abilities etc etc. they want to be seen as normal and the same as everyone else. They will therefore borrow the books that are closer to their chronological age or around that area to not seem as weak as they actually are. Again in age banding the books this might actually suddenly be a barrier to a young person picking the right book for them at the right time?

The take home messages of the report, is I feel,  by far the worst statement of the whole report.

‘Secondary teachers and librarians need to get better at encouraging children.’
The fault of all the failure, they state, is solely attributive to the role of the schools, it’s teachers and librarians. Now if this were a real report without bias then another alternative may be given. It might just be that it isn’t the schools that are at fault but it is the actual programme itself that is making young people in secondary schools read below their reading ages. They do so to pass tests, gain rewards, pay lip service etc etc.
If I were writing a truly independent report I would also want to consider all the schools not undertaking AR. What books are their students reading, what are the average reading ages of their books, are they more in line with the students’ chronological ages?
I work with hundreds of schools across the country yearly and in all the schools I have worked in without AR I can safely say that the books students are reading, the popular books are well above the levels in this report. In the school I work in at the moment I would most certainly say that the average age of books read is a lot higher. In fact down to our tracking I can even provide you with evidence of this.
I would also feel a little aggrieved if I purchased the AR programme as this report and this comment in particular is telling me I’m not doing a very good job. Not the greatest sales pitch maybe?
It also states that struggling readers and more able readers are being ‘seriously underchallenged.’ One could also assume then that the reason behind this is that the inherent flaws in the programme that is forcing/encouraging these students to be underchallenged?

This also highlights the actual books that are being read. As you will notice from the lists the authors/books are all extremely familiar. They are either classic authors (Dahl) or books that are very visible in the press, books with films, tv programmes, celebrity authors, or even whole class reads.
If I were to print off our top 20 books very few would match up. Ours would be a lot higher level with students having ‘moved on’ a long time ago from these types of books. From what I’ve seen that is also a similar picture across the country. Again, one could assume that it is maybe the failure of the programme that is leading students down this path rather than the inability of the users, perhaps.

Now, you could assume that I am not a fan of AR. This would be incorrect. I can see its benefits and its uses as one tool of many to help some young people improve their reading. But it is just that, one tool. I do however object to anything that feels it can provide for everyone but making the student fit into the programmes parameters rather than changing the programme to fit the child.
I also have a problem with its use in a school library and stating the fact it is used to promote reading for pleasure. It isn’t. How can something that requires you to pass a test promote pleasure? I read a book because I want to, it gives me a special feeling to enjoy it, laugh at/with it and have an emotional connection with it. Do I then want to take a test to prove I’ve read it? No. Do I want the only reward to be if I pass a test on it, and to feel a failure if I don’t? No.

This post isn’t really about AR it’s more about the report and the inaccuracies I see in it and I’d like to finish with just one more point.
At the end of the report it states how AR is so successful at ‘motivating weaker readers.’ A point that seems in complete contradiction to the rest of the report which states weak readers are seriously underchallenged. I would take this to mean that the programme is actually not successful for weaker readers. In fact in summary I would say that the report highlights more failures in its schools than successes. The report lays this failure at the feet of the schools however and not the programme?
At the beginning of this post I spoke about how all this can be completely subjective and who’s to say that my points are correct? If you believe in confirmation bias then this post will do nothing to change your views it will only strengthen those you already have.
Who knows I may be completely wrong, or perfectly right but I hope which ever it is you enjoyed reading!

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