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.