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Leveling Up and Keeping Score: High School Students Reading at 5th-Grade Levels, Report Says

2012 April 3
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Earlier this week, I came across a headline to raise the eyebrows of all of us lovers of reading: “American High School Students Are Reading Books At 5th-Grade-Appropriate Levels: Report.” Say what? As I skimmed the article, my bias meter went off–the report in question was authored by Renaissance Learning, Inc., creator of the Accelerated Reader (AR) reading assessment software. Wouldn’t Renaissance Learning have a vested interest in continued use of the AR software to improve reading abilities assessed as too low by … Renaissance Learning? Plus, I often resented AR for causing my most enthusiastic booktalks to be met with the response, “It sounds good, but I’m only allowed to read books at my AR level.” Arrow to a librarian’s heart, those words!


Still, I realized that–I can admit it–I have my own biases. I gravitate toward the cautionary views of Jim Trelease and Susan Straight; I like students to be able to take a book that sounds interesting to them without feeling like it’s worthless without a measurement or reward. But I’ve never tried to get to know or use AR, so I took it upon myself to do so, as well as to read their whole gosh-dang report. Phew! And with the caveat that I am not a teacher, reading specialist, or mathematician, here are some of my thoughts in the spirit of discussion:

  • This is actually a seriously interesting report. Its data sample is huge: reading records from over 7.6 million students who read 241 million books during the 2010-2011 school year. Much of it is charts and tables, so it’s not as long as it looks, and the text includes essays answering the question, “What should kids be reading?” Contributors include authors (Dan Gutman and Ellen Hopkins, among others), teachers, reading experts (Dave Coleman, a Common Core State Standards Contributing author), and a librarian. These contributors are allowed to disagree and present all sides, thus helping to allay my fear of bias.
  • ATOS means what again? I finally got the scoop on something that’s been shrouded in mystery to me: how the levels are assigned to AR books. The ATOS readability formula accounts for “the most important predictors of text complexity—average sentence length, average word length, word difficulty level, and total number of words in a book or passage.”
  • Now, about that headline: As the Huffington Post article gleans from the report, “A compilation of the top 40 books teens in grades 9-12 are reading in school shows that the average reading level of that list is 5.3–barely above the fifth grade.” This average includes books likely assigned (To Kill a Mockingbird) as well as chosen freely (The Hunger Games), yet the readability formula shows that these texts are hardly more complex than a 5th grader should be able to read. Obviously, text complexity does not equal idea/content complexity, and to account for this, all of the books on the list are from the “Upper Grade” interest level category.
  • Worth mentioning: In my opinion, two additional pieces of data need to be pointed out. First, grades 1-8 each have their own breakdown of top titles, showing them closer to grade-level reading ability, whereas grades 9-12 are averaged as a whole, providing a broad look at the high school averages that is inconsistent with the lower and middle grade method of averaging. Second, using the grade-level breakdown, it is easy to see that sixth grade is the year when students’ reading level begins to plateau. Having read on grade level each year up through 5th grade, the average ATOS book level of the top 40 books read by sixth graders was 5.2 overall–and remains 5.2 in seventh and eighth grades, ending with the 5.3 average for grades 9-12. High school teachers can be faced with the impossible task of raising a student as much as 7 reading levels–and getting all the criticism for not turning out college-ready, career-ready students–when this data shows that perhaps middle school is where the problem begins.
  • Putting AR to the test. One of the statements that jumped out at me was from Professor of Education Reform Sandra Stotsky: “…only the top 5% of our students will be able to read this country’s seminal founding documents in grade 11 or 12.” Surely, I thought, the founding documents aren’t that hard to read. I found the texts and plugged them into the Immediate ATOS Analyzer, where I was immediately proven wrong: the Constitution is a level 12.9; the Declaration of Independence, 13.8. The only book in the AR Bookfinder at level 13.8 is The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, by Henry Fielding. 896 pages, written in 1749. Complexity: 1, teen appeal: 0. Curious if I could even this score, I grabbed the 2011 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults titles and averaged their ATOS levels. The result was an even-lower-than-predicted 4.6.

I’d love to hear comments from anyone else with opinions on this report. Any teachers, parents, or teens using AR? Anyone go through grade school using a quiz or incentive program? Anyone just starting college wishing you’d read more difficult books to prepare you? Anyone living proof that you can read what you want and succeed in your chosen career? As a reader and a librarian, I am saddened by data from multiple sources, in addition to Renaissance Learning, that points to reading scores falling on a national level. I retain much of my skepticism toward oversimplifying reading as a mechanical formula, especially by a for-profit company. But having learned more about AR, I can appreciate it as a tool that helps parents, teachers, and students begin the daunting task of facing an entire library of options and knowing that choices should become progressively more complex to continue to grow their reading ability. As another ATOS report noted, “Matching students and books is always a two-step process in which readability measurement is a starting point.” I hope to meet many readers on the stepping stones beyond!

— Becky O’Neil, currently reading Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

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17 Responses
  1. April 3, 2012

    My oldest daughter, now 23, was highly encouraged to participate (by teachers) in the AR program up through fifth grade. She was the type of child who did well with a set list of tasks to accomplish and gained satisfaction in completing those tasks. Years later when my son, younger than her by six years, was faced with the AR program she admitted to me that she felt it was always a race to compete with other kids to see who had the most points. And to get bigger prizes.

    My son hated the AR program. He constantly complained that the books he enjoyed reading (mostly non-fiction) were not on the AR test lists. He pretty much blew off the entire program. In the fifth grade, his teachers were concerned that he was not reading at grade level. We had him tested. As we all looked at the results I said “Apparently, he is not reading at grade level.”

    He scored at college level reading on that test and several tests following that.

    All of my children have an aptitude for reading, one which I credit to the fact that we spent countless hours at the public library. My kids were always on a first name basis with the librarians in each city we lived in. I also believe that my appetite for voracious reading modeled for them a different form of entertainment.

    On the other hand, I often met children who did not live in reading intensive homes and were gobsmacked when visiting our home and saw the shelves and shelves, as well as piles, of books everywhere. Many of those kids borrowed books from us and went on our regular library trips.

    The AR program in my memory helped many kids read books they would not have. That said, I am disappointed that culturally popular books have higher point values than many of the classics. Though I would encourage anyone to read, no matter what. And to read what they enjoy whether it be Shakespeare, Austen, or J.K. Rowlings.

    I really don’t like the idea of forcing kids to read something when they are not interested. When at some future point in their life they may be at a place where the same book may have an incredible impact on them.

    • Becky ONeil permalink
      April 4, 2012

      Andi, thanks for your point that AR (or any quiz system) may not fit the learning style of every child. I was definitely similar to your daughter in that I enjoyed completing a list of tasks and “winning” by doing the best. I always did well on tests and had a good short-term memory. But I know a lot of kids who falter and fear when it comes to a test of any kind.

  2. Clynell Reinschmiedt permalink
    April 3, 2012

    Having taught English and/or been a high school librarian for 40 years, my observations about your topic are more general than just the AR question. I never used AR and, in fact, argued against its use by other schools in my district. But, now I don’t know if I still hold the same convictions against its use. What I observed over the years was a steady decline in the average student’s reading ability…and, in the past ten years, an alarming increase in the number of students who could be considered functionally illiterate. My excitement over getting my library internet-ready quickly was replaced by chagrin at the unforeseen literacy consequences. The current mountain of research (as well as the copious hand wringing) give testimony to technology’s detrimental effect on reading ability. I used to think I thought that about the internet because of my age… as in, “you know you’re old when you start complaining about the morality of youth”. But, that’s not the case. Technology’s smoke and mirrors have obscured the fact that few kids can read at grade-level now. There are other causes, of course, many of them 21st century societal realities. Still, the glowing computers have proven to be unfriendly aliens.

    • Becky ONeil permalink
      April 4, 2012

      Thanks for your thoughts, Clynell. I generally champion the idea that Reading Is Reading! Onscreen or off! Online or off! And maybe from a vocabulary basis, it is. But what I notice in my own reading since the advent of the internet is a change in ability to focus. I’m writing this on my computer, with multiple programs open, multiple windows, multiple tabs, and my smartphone right next to me. I attempt to keep up with articles via Facebook and Google Reader, but it’s often a headline skim. And if I click into an article and it’s 6-7 pages, I often abandon it. And that’s coming from me, who still reads a fair amount of novels and tries to limit my time in front of screens. I wonder how it is for kids who are completely digital natives and have no thought to curtail or balance their online diet.

  3. Tamara permalink
    April 3, 2012

    I read a lot of “easy” books when I was a kid, including The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High. There was nothing complex about these book. The plots were simple, the sentence structure was simple, the emotional/social issues were simple. And yet, I read them voraciously. When I got into trouble with my parents, they banned me from reading as a fate worse than grounding.

    As I got older, my reading changed, but it took a long time. It wasn’t in 9th grade, when all I wanted to do was hang out with my friends. It wasn’t in 10th grade, when I was worried about learning to drive. It wasn’t in 11th grade, when I was worried about getting my first job or 12th grade when I was worried about getting into college.

    But sooner or later, it did happen. I squeaked out a degree in English literature/creative writing from a prestigious college. And then I turned to a career in librarianship, where I use my love of reading and writing every day to encourage that love in others.

    I am not stupid. I’m most likely a bit lazy. But there is no reason to worry about me & the fact that I choose to pick up the latest teen hit before War & Peace or Grapes of Wrath. I think it will be ok.

    • Becky ONeil permalink
      April 4, 2012

      You make an excellent case study that reading “hard” books is not the only way to success! :)

  4. Chelsie permalink
    April 4, 2012

    I agree that AR testing is a good starting off point, but hardly the end all be all of reading level assessment. There are too many other factors involved, for instance I remember taking in AR test in 6th or 7th grade in which I scored somewhere in the upper high school range. Now I was always a decent reader but my reading was not what got me that that score, I remember that many of the words I was tested on while taking the AR assessment were legal/criminal related and I knew there meaning from watching entirely too many Law & Order and the like shows as a child. Thus my AR test proved that I watched adult television not that I should be reading adult books. In my middle school, we had to earn certain amount of AR points each quarter (I believe for a grade and for a readers’ celebration) we set the goals with the teacher and then read and took AR tests. One quarter I decided that, I was going to set a lofty goal and then try to get it all done in one book. I decided to read Gone with the Wind (AR level 7.1 AR points 71 at least currently I am assuming it hasn’t changed). It is quite a long book and while I could read the majority of the words, I didn’t have the background knowledge or the life experience to understand a lot of the action. I ended up reading half the book and watching half the movie (opposite halves of course) and failed the AR test. While I learned the valuable lesson that you can’t trust movie adaptations, I also learned that AR reading level isn’t everything.

    Having a high sore can be a nightmare to a student because reading isn’t just about word and sentence length or in ways not even about word difficulty it is about being able to take those factors read them and then comprehend your reading because as you said, “text complexity does not equal idea/content complexity”. A high reading level 2nd grader could read the words of The Hunger Games but do not have the capacity to truly understand the ideas presented. And a low level may keep a student from pushing themselves to more complex texts than they can comprehend with guidance. Of course, you have to be able to read the words before you can comprehend them but if you can’t find meaning in the words does reading them really do you any good? Teachers, parents and the like need to be thoughtful about what students are reading and realize that there are many factors in finding the right book for a student including interest, vocabulary understanding and comprehension level. AR testing is valuable when it is used as one of many tools and when teachers, parents and students all understand just what it is testing and see the levels as suggestions not commands.

    • Becky ONeil permalink
      April 4, 2012

      “AR testing is valuable when it is used as one of many tools” — I agree, Chelsie. I also appreciate your point about being able to understand the ideas of the book; one of the criticisms I read is that AR tests for recall and not comprehension. (It does offer Literacy Skills quizzes now that are supposed to help in this area.) Your Law & Order example was a (somewhat hilarious) illustration of only testing recall! AR also seems to try to separate itself from incentive programs, but when it is used to compete for points, I think it suffers from the same pitfalls that incentive programs do.

  5. Dee Dee Davis permalink
    April 4, 2012

    Funny you should mention this topic, my supervisor and I were just lamenting over reading levels the other day. As an employee in a joint library we have a teacher who uses the Lexile measure, which I think is actually worse than AR as it doesn’t regard content what so ever. I never even heard of AR until college when I tutored a learning disabled teenager. I was fascinated by AR, but kind of appalled.

    I, too, grew up in a house where reading was modeled by my parents, with my father being the voracious one. He was also an engineer who routinely would use phrases like “thermal inversion,” “molecular regeneration,” or when teaching my brother who was eight at the time how to stand up for himself, said “you must stand like a truss, because the even weight distribution makes it difficult for you to fall over.” I joked my brother should stand like an I-beam to see what happens.–But I digress, the point is Daddy always gave the technical answer for the most basic childhood questions; I grew up with these words and saw them repeated over in my readings as I went through school.

    Children should be able to read what appeals to them. The hope is with time their taste will mature. There was a recent study done on readers of non-fiction books have a higher vocabulary and a better grasp of reading comprehension than fiction readers. I believe it to a certain degree. When I was nine years old I proudly proclaimed to my daddy I read St. James version of the Bible. Daddy quirked a brow and asked me what it was about. I hesitated, “Uh . . . there’s was an apple, and a flood, and Jesus.” I didn’t understand much of what I read, but gosh darn it, I read it. I’m afraid that will happen to other kids; they’ll read something, but it’s pointless if they don’t take away something from it. And reading for a prize? I always thought reading was it’s own prize. :-/

    • Becky ONeil permalink
      April 4, 2012

      I’m with you in the “reading is its own prize” camp! It’s amazing how much a book-rich house and parents who model reading really make a difference. Your father sounds like a wonderful example.

  6. April 4, 2012

    I HATED the Accelerated Reader program when it was introduced in High School. I’ve always been a reader. My grandmother taught me how to read before I started Kindergarten, and I never stopped. So I resented the requirement that I had to earn x number of AR points for my English class. I actually refused to take the tests, and earned my first C as a result. After that first nine weeks though, AR was never again included as part of a grade (at least while I was there). After that it was an incentive program and there were prizes for top readers. Reading was enough so I never bothered with the tests.

    • April 8, 2012

      I also hated AR! I remember having to read books and then taking the tests on them. Although I have pretty excellent reading comprehension and read a ton, I have trouble sometimes remembering details — like the name of the town the action took place in or the names of minor (or even major characters). As I remember it, there were a lot of rote recall questions on the AR quizzes, and I didn’t do well on them, despite the fact that I’d read the books and could discuss the concepts, themes, and symbolism in them.

      So, bombed AR tests, managed to continue to read voraciously, got an English degree from a fancy-pants university, and became a librarian. My feelings on reading levels are pretty shaped by that, there.

  7. Alison Gulley permalink
    May 22, 2012

    Excellent discussion. Thank you! As an English professor and mother of a kindergartner and 3rd grader, both voracious readers, I’m just learning about AR and Lexile systems, and, admittedly not knowing much about them, have been very alarmed. I’m in the “let them read whatever they like camp” (although we’ve put off the Hunger Games for the reason cited above, despite my oldest begging). In my sophomore lit classes, I mix in a little Harry Potter with Beowulf and Dr. Faustus–students tend to like everything when given a chance to really understand and discuss it (probably not Tom Jones, though:).

  8. Nikki Stephens permalink
    August 23, 2012

    I think it is interesting to note that these comments were written for the most part by voracious readers and/or about voracious readers. I am one myself. I was the kid in high school who never paid attention because I was stuck in a book. My children see me reading. They read. The problem is the majority of today’s students do not have parents that take the time to read. Even worse most of today’s students would not read a book that was not assigned to them. AR helps those students fall in love with books.
    As a 9th grade teacher two years ago, I had a student (let’s call him Bobby) who had NEVER read an entire book. Bobby thought reading was stupid and the fact that he had to get 9 AR points as part of his grade was the worst thing ever. At our high school the kids may read read anything above a 4.0, because the average book level. The first six weeks Bobby failed all of his classes and he was in detention for not trying to earn any of his AR points which we consider the same as turning in a blank test! He didn’t care. His parents didn’t graduate, his brother didn’t graduate, and he was going to drop out the day he turned 16! The second six weeks I convinced him to let me pick out a book for him. I told him to just read a few chapters and try it, if you hate it we will try something else. Bobby devoured that book. His grades began to rise. He didn’t pass eveything, but he passed a few classes one of which was English.The next year I moved to the librarian position and Bobby spent his lunch hour in the library reading every day. He passed every class last year. This year the very first day of school, he brought his 9th grade cousin in to meet me and to help him pick out a book. He told his cousin that he could be the second one in his family to graduate high school. Bobby is determined to be the first. Yes, he has a couple of teachers pulling for him, encouraging him, but he fell in love with reading. Reading that book was the first step HE took.
    I can’t say this happens for every kid or even one out of ten. I could tell you story after story of kids who would have gone through high school not knowing where the library was located if not for being told they had to have AR points. With AR all 100 of my 9th graders could read a different book, and I didn’t have to grade 100 book reports to make sure they read the book. I’m not saying it is the greatest thing in the world. It has its problems, but it’s a great tool that teachers can use . All teachers are going to “force” a kid to read even if it’s a Math textbook. Why shouldn’t we “force” them to read something they may like?
    Yes, reading on level is improtant, but the saying is “the more you read the more you succeed” not the more you read on level.

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