I totally understand and believe in the idea behind the Accelerated Reader (AR) program by Renaissance Learning. If you’re not familiar with AR, it’s an adjunct to standard school reading lists or other reading curriculum. Kids read books then take short quizzes about the books and earn scores based on the difficulty of the books and how they did on the tests. The quizzes are really just to make sure the kids read the books. Simple stuff. But if used as intended — as a way to encourage kids to read who don’t want to — it seems like a pretty good system. According to Renaissance Learning, over 63,000 schools use AR, and 15 to 20 million students participate, so obviously a lot of folks agree.

There’s one thing that has always mystified me, though: Why isn’t there some free, public, alternative to AR?

Considering what it is, AR is absurdly expensive. Even the smallest school can easily spend thousands of dollars a year on it. Schools can buy quizzes for individual books, perhaps to match their existing library collection, or they can buy big blocks of tests, categorized in a variety of ways. There’s also an online version of AR called Renaissance Place where a school can get access to all or some of the tests for an annual subscription fee.

Despite the claims on the Renaissance Learning website, there’s absolutely nothing special (or frankly interesting) about AR. Basically Renaissance Learning categorizes books by reading level and then they develop very simple, short 5- to 20-question computer-based quizzes about those books. That’s it. The only thing Renaissance Learning seems to have going for them is that they have created a lot of tests. They claim to have over 125,000.

There are some alternatives out there, but they all seem to be proprietary. For example, Sylvan Learning’s Book Adventure. It’s basically the same concept as AR, and it’s available free over the web, but it only has tests for 6,000 books. And because Sylvan Learning is a huge electronic testing and tutoring company, there’s a feeling that Book Adventure is simply there to maintain a minimally competitive position with Renaissance Learning in this space.

So why hasn’t the Department of Education or a state department of education or a non-profit like Reading is Fundamental or a big library school or a major university stepped forward to create a free version of the “AR Concept”? If it was reasonably done, elementary schools would flock to it. The amount of money needed to create an online testing and scoring framework and to pay grad students to write tests and categorize books would be a drop in the bucket compared to what school systems are spending on AR.

AR is the kind of product that certainly made some sense before all schools had Internet connections and before it became clear that it was possible to supply valuable, quality, resources over the web. But today when students and schools make heavy use of free general resources like Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube, not to mention more specifically targeted free “educational” sites such as MERLOT and BBC Learning, it seems odd that so many schools are spending so much money on a product that could be replaced with a free web-based version relatively cheaply and easily.


4 Responses to Why isn’t there a free alternative to Accelerated Reader?

  1. Frankie Smith says:

    I just began this morning trying to come up with an alternative to AR because we simply may not be able to afford it next year with the economic problems across the country and in our state (Alabama). That is how I found your article. As I read other articles about the effectiveness of AR, I’m not sure that the alternative isn’t juat an old-fashioned reading practice approach that does not include points and levels, but instead focuses on interests and free reading time. The only problem would be the accountability factor. How can we be sure the students actually read the books without some kind of assessment? Anyway, I agree that there should be something available that would help to promote reading in general without promoting a costly program.

  2. Chris says:

    We’ve had AR for many years in spite of numerous technical issues. Renaissance Learning’s tech support is dismal. A free alternative would only be worse – no tech support at all. What’s needed is something open source. Shouldn’t be too difficult – a MySQL database and a PHP (web-based) front end. Then all you need is a website where everybody can download the software and exchage tests (along with a forum for tech support) and voila!

  3. Jeff Howard says:

    We’re using ReadnQuiz now. It’s not free, but it seems like a fair price and our PTA refuses to pay for AR. They use crowd-sourcing to get quizzes. Teachers write them. The quizzes are great and the kids love the program. They can give feedback on the questions. We looked hard for alternatives and it’s pretty much just RC, bookadventure and ReadnQuiz.

  4. Traci says:

    try learn2earn.org

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