The United States is facing a literacy crisis of significant and even enormous proportions. In fact, more than two-thirds of eighth-grade students read below grade level while nearly one-half of all twelfth graders do not possess basic literacy skills (Sedita, 2011, p. 1). In addition to these troubling facts, a literacy gap exists with most minority students reading well below their respective grade levels. In recent years, federal legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 has been forwarded by policy makers in Washington in an attempt to improve literacy in America. Yet, despite the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade-and-a-half, no significant progress has been made in the fight to improve literacy in the nation. Of significant relevance to policy makers and educators, the utilization of reading tools like the Accelerated Reader (AR) has become increasingly widespread. In fact, AR (a software assessment tool designed to monitor reading progress) has been used in more than 75,000 schools since the 1980s (Thompson, Madhuri & Taylor, 2008, p. 14). Despite more than three decades of use in America’s public schools, however, the effectiveness of AR in improving reading proficiency remains subject to significant debate. To complicate matters, most research investigations concerning AR have focused on the primary school setting. As a result, far too little is known about the actual effectiveness of AR in the secondary education setting. The current study is, therefore, generally concerned with determining whether AR is effective as a reading intervention tool in decreasing non-proficient adolescent reading achievement scores to increasing adolescent reading achievement scores as measured on the STAR Reading Assessment.
The literature review is presented in the following major sections: i) The Theoretical/Conceptual Framework, ii) State of the Knowledge Summary - Literature Review Synthesis, iii) How the Research should Extend, Differ from, or Replicate the Past Studies, iv) The Shortcomings that should Be Avoided and Strengths to Follow, and v) Critique of the Literature for Controversial Methodological Decisions.
As the proposed research is concerned with the basic problem of determining the effectiveness of Accelerated Reader as a reading intervention tool in decreasing non-proficient adolescent reading achievement scores and increasing proficient adolescent reading achievement scores as measured on the STAR Reading, it becomes logical and useful to align the current project, at least in part, with the theoretical basis of AR – namely, behaviorism. Behaviorism is based on the basic principle of stimulus/response conditioning. Traditionally, behaviorist learning is viewed as a function of memorization of fact, adherence to rules, and rote acquisition of terminology. Further, it posits that student reading proficiency is a function of sub-skill acquisition in the order of letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and text. As students gain proficiency with letters, it becomes possible to ascertain the meaning of words. With an understanding of words, it then becomes possible to ascertain the meaning of sentences, the meaning of paragraphs, and, ultimately, the meaning of texts. Thus, as a behaviorist implementation, AR fundamentally requires students to establish point accumulation goals based on how many grade-level books and/or texts they read. Point accumulation, in other words, is the stimulus factor of the behaviorist-based AR program.
In addition to the behaviorist theoretical foundations of the study, Rumelhart's Interactive Reading Model is also a part of the theoretical framework of the study. The model is used to describe the reading process from a cognitive and behavioral point of view. As a process, reading involves sensory input and thought (i.e., mental processing) that helps build long term memory constructs and meaning in the minds of students. Mental associations (i.e., schema) are believed to be a big part of learning and comprehension. Due to the fact that no two students bring the same experiences to the table, reading is a unique learning activity for each and every student.
The fundamental basis is conceived in the form of a problem statement: the problem to be investigated through this study is to determine the effectiveness of Accelerated Reader™ (AR) as a reading intervention tool in decreasing non-proficient adolescent reading achievement scores to increasing proficient adolescent reading achievement scores as measured on the STAR Reading Assessment.
This section of the literature review provides a state of knowledge summary and synthesis. Discussion is arranged according to the following topical scheme: i) Neglect of Literacy Instruction in the Secondary Setting, ii) Reading Programs versus Qualified Reading Specialists, iii) America's Literacy Crisis, iv) Minority Students at Risk, v) Evidence-based Guidance, vi) Research Focus Shifts to Adolescent Literacy and Implications for Instruction, vii) Adolescent Literacy, viii) the Benefits of Whole School Planning, ix) Reading Programs versus Qualified Reading Specialist, x) America's Literacy Crisis, xi) Minority Students at Risk, xii) Evidence-based Guidance, xiii) Research Focus Shifts to Adolescent Literacy and Implications for Instruction, xiv) Adolescent Literacy, xv) the Benefits of Whole School Planning, xvi) Accelerated Reader (AR) - Education Theory Conflicts, xvii) Accelerated Reader (AR) as a Disincentive to Life-long Reading, xviii) Accelerated Reader as an Effective Tool for Encouraging Reading, xix) Accelerated Reader Claims of Excellence, xx) Criticisms of the Accelerated Reader Program on Middle School Student, xxi) Lessons from Response to Intervention (RTI), xxii) Six Types of Involvement Essential for Student Learning and Progress, xxiii) An Agenda for Advancing Adolescent Literacy, and xxiv) Reading First Impact Study.
For many years, literacy instruction has been focused on the primary grades at the neglect of later literacy development (Snow & Moje, 2010, p. 56). Literacy skills are, without question, the most important and essential of all skills across the lifespan. Adequate reading skills are necessary not only for career and vocational success but every day functioning - reading and comprehending product instructions, recipes, news articles, job applications, and more. As society continues to shift towards a service-based economy, the importance of reading skills is becoming even more critical for success. Most service related jobs demand comprehension and retention of diverse technical nomenclature. And what is more, the U.S. economy is becoming increasingly oriented towards jobs that are conceptually based. Literacy, in so many words, is becoming paramount for career and life success in the 21st century. Therefore, educators and policy makers are now recognizing the need for emphasizing literacy in middle and high schools through instruction and program interventions. However, Greenleaf and Hinchman (2009) referred to literacy instruction in the secondary setting as a travesty (Greenleaf & Hinchman, 2009, p. 4). A lot of questions are being raised, therefore, as to where exactly the focus should be in terms of policy formulation and literacy research – specifically, with respect to reading programs and/or reading specialists.
In light of the need to evaluate the effectiveness of reading programs and the widespread popularity of AR in America’s schools, AR becomes an important point of research focus with respect to the question of whether it helps meet the literacy education needs of secondary students. Along these lines, researchers Pitcher, Martinez, Dicembre, Fewster and McCormick (2010) investigated the literacy needs of secondary students. Based on a random sample of seven students, the researchers found that for all participants reading comprehension was below grade level, yet none of the students were receiving instruction or intervention on reading comprehension (Pitcher et al., 2010, p. 643). The main reason that students were not receiving reading comprehension instruction appears to be due to the lack of teacher quality, teacher training, and skill in this area. The researchers, therefore, recommended that school districts should not invest in ineffective one-size-fits-all reading programs like AR, but should spend district funds on hiring qualified reading specialists (Pitcher et al., 2010, p. 643). In sum, the researchers concluded that teachers play a much more important role in literacy enhancement than software programs like AR.
While society continues to change and place greater need and emphasis on the importance of literacy skills, the data reveals a troubling reality in secondary schools across the nation. In fact, National Assessment of Education Process (NAEP) data from 2007 reveals the following: 69% of eighth grade students have comprehension skills below grade level, approximately two-thirds of 12th graders read below basic proficiency levels, one-half of 12th graders do not possess basic literacy skills, and about 40% of high school graduates do not have the literacy skills required by employers (Sedita, 2011, p. 1). Stated in terms of the numbers, there are 22 million secondary students in America with more than 6 million having significant literacy deficits (Haynes, 2011, p. 10). These numbers speak loudly about the severity and scope of the literacy problem in the United States. It has grown to a point of major proportions with the loss in human capital and potential measuring in the millions.
The seriousness of the literacy crisis in the United States is heightened when considering both literacy proficiency rates of minority students and demographic trends. Most recently, a significant literacy gap between white students and students of color and native students has become the topic of political and academic discourse. In a recent study, for example, researchers from the Alliance for Excellent Education (2012) reported that amongst eighth grade students, only 13% of African-Americans, 16% of Hispanics and 21% of Native Americans scored at or above grade level proficiency in reading (Alliance For Excellent Education, 2012, p. 2). Across the board, these scores are less than half that of White students. When considering the overall demographic trajectory of America over the next 30+ years, the literacy proficiency gap between minority students and White students becomes most disturbing for educators and policy makers. In fact, the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that by the year 2050 more than half of the U.S. population will consist of minorities (Alliance For Excellent Education, 2012, p. 1). By implication, many researchers and policy makers fear that the trajectory of literacy rates in the United States is a serious threat to the economic and national security of the nation.
The combined facts of the ethnic literacy gap and the burgeoning population of minorities in the United States is creating a sense of urgency for educators and policymakers concerned about improving reading and writing instruction (i.e., literacy) across the nation. Along similar lines of inquiry, researchers for the Council of the Great City Schools (2012) investigated the achievement gap in Black male academics and literacy. Of relevance to the current study, the researchers articulated a blueprint for advancing educational equity through school-based policies. A key finding was that educators and policy makers need to encourage and guide African-American male students to participate in extended-time programs for strengthening basic skills - reading, writing, math and science (The Council of the Great City Schools, 2012, p. 42). AR, in this respect, could serve as a principal tool for guiding Black males students through the literacy training process. AR is non-intrusive in the sense that it allows students to work and study with significant freedom and flexibility according to personal needs, constraints, and interests.
In a recent study, Lewis, Simon, Uzzell, Horwitz, and Casserly (2010) investigated the education of Black males in urban schools. The research was predicated on the claim that young Black males in the United States are facing a literacy crisis of major proportions. As a research focus, the researchers examined the reading achievement of eighth grade Black males in urban settings. Surprisingly, the researchers noted some improvements in average NAEP reading results of eighth grade Black students between the years 2003 and 2009 – scores have improved from 241 to 243 points on average (Lewis et al., 2010, p. 32). In line with previously mentioned research that emphasized the importance of teachers and literacy instruction, Palumbo and Sanacore (2009) found that even in cases where students have a history of literacy difficulty, teachers in the secondary education setting can help minority children close the academic achievement gap by integrating literacy instruction with content-area curriculum (p. 275). Most teachers do not, however, possess the skills to provide effective literacy training in the secondary education setting. This is due to two main factors – i) literacy is a difficult and complex subject even for teachers, and ii) integrating literacy in subject/content areas requires multi-disciplinary expertise.
Given America’s growing literacy crisis, researchers and policy makers are increasingly concerned and occupied with finding ways to improve the reading and writing skills of students at the primary and secondary levels. In a recent study, Ayers and Miller (2009) investigated the Striving Readers program in order to determine how to create and sustain programs that support the goals of improving literacy programs in the secondary setting. The Striving Readers program is a federal initiative that provides funding (i.e., grants) to improve literacy for a limited number of school districts in the nation. The Striving Readers program was of special interest to the researchers because of its highly experimental nature – specifically in terms of its utilization of cross-disciplinary strategies and experimental evaluation techniques (Ayers & Miller, 2009, p. 2). Of perhaps most relevance, the researchers advanced the following key lessons: i) invest in teacher professional development to support literacy for adolescents and ii) support efforts to strengthen partnerships for teacher preparation programs and districts (Ayers & Miller, 2009, p. 9). Once again, the findings comport with the conclusions of other studies regarding the primacy of teachers in improving literacy in the secondary setting. Computer aided learning systems are not a substitute for teachers. Technology should be construed as a tool for both teachers and students.
Along similar lines of evidence-based research aimed at helping educators and policy makers address the U.S. literacy crisis, researchers at the U.S. Department of Education (2010) examined Enhanced Reading Opportunities (ERO) involving multiple implementations of two reading interventions (specifically, Reading Apprenticeship Academic Literacy and Xtreme Reading) at 34 high schools from ten school districts. Within each of the test settings, students were randomly assigned to one of the literacy programs. The researchers found that ERO programs improved reading comprehension scores moderately over the course of 9th grade by 0.9 standard score points with reading skills still below grade level at the end of the program (Somers et al., 2010, p. xv). Given the modest benefits of the two programs, researchers and policymakers find themselves needing to take a close look at AR in terms of its capabilities for improving reading proficiency and literacy, especially when it comes to application in the secondary education setting.
As the literacy crisis in America has worsened, the attention of policymakers and researchers has shifted in the last ten years towards greater attention and emphasis on adolescence and the implications for instruction. Policy efforts and legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, for instance, have beckoned for greater focus on research-based (i.e., scientifically supported) approaches to literacy instruction (Sedita, 2011, p. 1). As a result of this new emphasis, popular reading enhancement tools like the Accelerated Reader are now garnering greater interest than ever before while also coming under increasingly close scrutiny. Most importantly, growing numbers of researchers and policymakers want to know whether the Accelerated Reader helps increase proficient adolescent reading scores and/or decrease non-proficient adolescent reading achievement scores. In this respect, their concerns are largely driven by the fact that reading proficiency scores at the secondary level have basically flat-lined since the early 1970s (Sedita, 2011, p. 1).
Witt (2012) discussed adolescent literacy and the benefits of whole school planning. As noted by the author, high school teachers tend to blame primary teachers for the literacy problem in the secondary setting; primary teachers, in turn, often point their fingers at early primary teachers and early childhood teachers for not teaching reading properly and effectively (Witt, 2012, p. 34). The basic idea behind whole school planning, therefore, is to develop a coherent philosophy about literacy such that teachers at all levels know and understand how to approach reading, writing, and literacy consistently. Within the philosophical framework, it is also critical that teachers understand their respective roles in literacy training and instruction for students. In providing a brief outline of such, Witt (2012) emphasized that students in the secondary setting learn in a context involving subject specialization which, by implication, means that the teaching of literacy also becomes more complicated and specialized (Witt, 2012, p. 34). These fundamental facts add more weight to the important question of how effective a reading program like AR can actually be in the secondary education setting. Positive findings would provide educators and policymakers with strong validation for continued funding for programs like AR in more secondary institutions.
Along related lines of research, Thompson, Madhuri, and Taylor (2008) reported on AR as a software assessment tool for monitoring reading progress. As the researchers pointed out in their study, AR has been used in more than 75,000 schools since the 1980s (Thompson, Madhuri & Taylor, 2008, p. 14). A growing number of researchers and policymakers, therefore, recognize that the time is long overdue for investigating the effectiveness of AR. In another recent study, Schrader, Stuber, and Wedwick (2012) investigated a potential problem for districts that mandate the use of AR. Specifically, the researchers noted that a disconnect often exists between what teachers are required to do by a mandate with AR and what they prefer and/or actually do (Schrader, Stuber & Wedwick, 2012, p. 14). The study found that teachers are often lax and/or remiss in carrying out precise duties and procedures related to the proper administration of AR. In some cases, this is due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of the AR system. In other cases, it is simply a matter of teachers not wanting to comply with standards and procedures they feel are imposed upon them by legislators and politicians who are far removed from the realities of the classroom. Unfortunately, if teachers are not following the AR mandates, then any potential efficacy of AR in helping secondary students improve their literacy skills could very well be undermined.
In terms of uncovering potential theoretical problems with AR, the program uses a point system for establishing student goals whereby students are awarded points as an indicator of progress. The implicit education theory is based on behaviorism - i.e., stimulus and response with point rewards as positive reinforcement. Many teachers, however, view behaviorism as an outdated theoretical basis for classroom instruction preferring, rather, a constructivist approach that emphasizes discovery and experimental learning. Old school behaviorism, in other words, treats students like objects that can be manipulated by external stimuli. Constructivism, by contrast, represents a paradigm shift and departure from traditional instructional approaches where students are fundamentally passive learners. Constructivist theory, in other words, puts the student at the center of learning equation so that he/she can engage in a process of active discovery and acquisition of new knowledge. As such, the constructivist classroom defines the teacher’s in an entirely new light – one of facilitator in the student-centered learning environment. Summarily stated, a significant number of teachers do not believe that the AR point accumulation scheme represents the right kind of goal-setting system for improving literacy (Schrader, Stuber & Wedwick, 2012, p. 15). Students should be encouraged to discover intrinsic motivation factors for reading that are more akin to the constructivist, student-centered classroom and learning environment.
In a related study, Boucher (2010) reported the findings of an observational experiment regarding the use of AR in California classrooms. A critical finding of the educator concerned the way that the emphases of AR dissuade students from reading for enjoyment. More specifically, the educator found that schools use AR to dictate what students can and cannot read often discouraging students from reading novels and other literature that does not comply with the AR point system (Boucher, 2010, p. 19). In other words, when students using AR try to get approval to read books that do not necessarily comport with their grade level, they are generally denied access. This causes students to be less concerned with reading for enjoyment in favor of more pragmatic issues like skill acquisition. Thus, AR tends to overemphasize short term gains for the sake of improving reading comprehension scores at the expense of encouraging reading as a life-long habit and pleasure.
For years, the value and effectiveness of AR in improving literacy has been debated widely. Based on the evolving research and popularity of AR, Solley (2011) reported on the putative proper and effective use of AR. Like many other types of research, Solley discussed the importance of teacher training in the use of AR in order to help teachers leverage the capabilities of the program. Most critically, for teachers to make the best use of AR, it must not be used to punish students for taking initiative like trying to read the material above their measured reading level (Solley, 2011, p. 47). As no surprise, these findings comport with the idea that AR can undermine discovery learning and the habit of reading for enjoyment. Given the relationship of these two factors to literacy development, questions yet remain about the effectiveness of AR in promoting reading efficiency in the secondary education setting. Specifically, researchers need to examine the relationship between AR performance and teacher utilization strategies for the usage of the system. Although the AR motivation scheme is fundamentally based on the behaviorist paradigm, teachers with a solid understanding of knowledge and skill construction might be better facilitators of literacy proficiency. Such teachers, in other words, are more likely to use AR as a supplemental tool for helping students improve literacy proficiency as opposed to using it as a total learning system.
On a positive note regarding AR, Pfeiffer (2011) reported on claims of excellent academic results from the implementation of AR in Kansas schools. According to the researcher, after adopting AR, students at Pittsburg Community Middle School went from below acceptable reading progress to a standard of excellence in just one school year in some cases (Pfeiffer, 2011, p. 60). As the AR program is designed, the AR implementation at Pittsburg Community Middle School emphasized independent reading using books and materials from the library as approved by the Librarian. Specifically, the Librarian was given the responsibility of building a curriculum based on AR books. The Librarian was also designated as the official advisor and coach for students in the book selection process and was tasked with the responsibility of coaching students in reading strategies, reading comprehension, and planning how to achieve their point goals for the AR system (Pfeiffer, 2011, p. 60). The Tier One Response to Intervention (RTI) is known as Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) in Kansas. Students are tested and categorized in one of the three tiers, tier three being the students who need the most reading and literacy help. Most notably, the researcher found that AR was not only effective for tier one and tier two students but also helped tier three students significantly (Pfeiffer, 2011, p. 62). In other words, in this particular study, AR was found to have positive impacts on literacy for both proficient readers and non-proficient readers.
In a related study, Moyer and Williams (2011) reported on a study conducted at Delsea Regional Middle School in 2007-2008. Specifically, educators at Delsea responded to criticisms of AR as a one-size-fits-all solution by engaging in customization of AR. The researchers found that the implementation of AR has been an ongoing process demonstrating flexibility and adaptability of AR to meet the unique needs of students (Moyer & Williams, 2011, p. 70). Perhaps most importantly, the flexibility and adaptability of AR were closely interlinked with the capabilities and skills of teachers and facilitators. Specifically, teachers and facilitators of AR were careful to not use the system as a tool for punishing students – that is, making them read for reasons other than personal interest. On the contrary, students were encouraged to pursue their own avenues of interest in learning in a discovery learning process. Conclusively, it was found that the use of AR and STAR (for measuring achievement) helped students learn to read more deliberately and, thereby, with better comprehension (Moyer & Williams, 2011, p. 72). Thus, this research study, at least in part, refuted common doubts regarding the potential ineffectiveness of AR in advancing literacy for diverse student populations.
In a recent study, Huang (2012) investigated the effectiveness of the Accelerated Reading program on middle school students for reading achievement based on STAR measurements. In the study, the researcher gathered data by means of a survey, structured interviews, and classroom observation from 211 eighth grade students. Contrary to the findings of previously mentioned researchers, based on the analysis of AR pretest and post-test scores Huang found that AR did not improve student reading scores; it merely increased the amount of time that students read (Huang, 2012, p. 240). Perhaps most relevantly, the researcher called into question the STAR assessment tool. Similar to some studies which have questioned the reliability and validity of the STAR instrument, Huang found that the Cloze (i.e., fill in the blank) procedures utilized in STAR led many students to just guess at correct answers (Huang, 2012, p. 240). Thus, the researcher raised doubts not only about AR but also about the validity of its assessment component, STAR.
In related research, Ginno (2011) investigated AR tests to determine if results were comparable to those derived from independent reading inventories. Most notably, the educator found that AR seems to consistently overrate the comprehension skills and abilities of students (Ginno, 2011, p. 19). Moreover, the educator found that the AR program encourages students to spend more time reading books at the expense of directly teaching them to read quality books at higher levels (Ginno, 2011, p. 20). Thus, the findings of these studies would appear to indicate that AR encourages students to read the wrong material. And what is more, AR is an ineffective reading program with an integrated assessment tool (i.e., STAR) that is invalid and yields unreliable study results.
In a related study, Cox (2012) investigated whether or not AR is a suitable program for all students. Specifically, Cox noted that the underlying philosophy of AR is to encourage and motivate students to read more books (Cox, 2012, p. 14). The basic problem, in this respect, is that motivation is a complex psychological and emotional construct. Motivation involves both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Intrinsic motivation stems from a student’s natural desire to learn and improve themselves. Extrinsic motivation is encouraged through rewards and other external factors like better grades. As the researcher found, however, AR not only fails to use any substantial forms of intrinsic motivation, but even the system’s extrinsic motivational mechanism (i.e., adding up points) is weak (Cox, 2012, p. 14). Even further, researchers have found that AR is one of the few commercial-based reading programs that offer some positive effects on literacy for secondary students, but it has no significant effects on reading skills such as fluency and comprehension (Sutton, 2012, p. 39).
Researchers at the Carnegie Corporation on New York’s Council in Advancing Adolescent Literacy (2011) found that teachers now have a vast array of powerful literacy tools at their disposal for helping secondary students improve their literacy skills, but a key to success is to use the right tool for the individual student – in other words, a one-size-fits-all program is not the answer to America’s literacy crisis; literacy instruction must be tailored and adapted to the individual needs of each and every student (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006, p. 3; Boardman et al., 2008, p. 33). This means that students come to the classroom with diverse experiences, differing skill sets, various interests and proclivities, and different attitudes about reading. Thus, as Tomlinson (2009) found, students differ in learning on a case-by-case basis (Tomlinson, 2009, p. 28).
In light of the shortcomings of AR, some researchers are looking to other programs like Response to Intervention (RTI) as a way of gaining insights about how educators can improve literacy in the secondary setting. RTI is part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As such, RTI calls for a tiered intervention based on the assumption that students with literacy challenges have not enjoyed sufficient opportunities for learning (Lenski, 2011, p. 277). A key finding from the study was that reading and literacy instruction is too often assigned to English teachers who are insufficiently trained for the subject; literacy instruction, therefore, needs to be integrated into all subjects and content areas (Lenski, 2011, p. 277).
In considering the efficacy of AR in the broader context of literacy success, Martinez (2011) discussed six types of involvement that are widely considered to be essential for student learning and progress. The six types of involvement include: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making, and collaborating. As emphasized by the researcher, any program that will effectively result in student learning and progress must address the parenting factor - specifically, helping parents and family members create home environments that are supportive of students and conducive to learning (Martinez, 2011, p. 221). In so many words, for any literacy program to be effective, educators must find ways to bridge the so-called school, home gap. Students with grade level or higher literacy aptitude generally come from homes where reading and learning are relatively well supported. On the other hand, students who fall below their grade level in reading and literacy often lack the optimal home environment and support system for advancing reading and literacy skills. In addition to these facts, adolescent learners have special needs related to personal interests, advanced instruction, and support from parents and other key caregivers/stakeholders. Ultimately, the researcher found that parents/caregivers represent the most important element in the lives of adolescent students where the key factor was whether or not the parent/caregiver provides encouragement to the student to continue academic pursuits (Martinez, 2011, p. 225). Thus, the most effective way to motivate secondary students is to tap into the intrinsic motivation mechanisms inherent to all people. This finding raises questions about the appropriateness of AR’s extrinsic behaviorist motivation mechanism – specifically, the point/goal scheme.
In a report from the Carnegie Corporation on New York’s Council in Advancing Adolescent Literacy (2011) and Berman (2009), researchers stressed that the rate of literacy improvement in America’s schools is insufficient to support a competitive nation in the globalized new world (Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy, 2010, p. x; Carnegie Corporation of New York Review, 2010, p. 1). Improvements in reading literacy, though minimal, have primarily come in the primary grades. By the time students enter middle school, literacy advantages often decrease and/or disappear entirely. The point, more exactly, is that while secondary teachers typically blame primary school teachers for the literacy failures of secondary students, the truth of the matter is that literacy does not carry over well into the secondary education setting unless instruction continues. The researchers identified a number of factors contributing, however, to the difficulties secondary teachers experience in teaching literacy. These include greater complexity in language, greater conceptual challenges, more detailed graphics representations (i.e., tables and charts), and greater demand for information synthesis (Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy, 2010, p. 12).
In investigating literacy in the secondary education setting, Wise (2009) found that too often secondary students enter science, history, English, and/or math courses without the literacy skills they need to comprehend the material adequately (Wise, 2009, p. 370). Proficiency in math and science is a matter of national interest and competitiveness in the global economy. With these findings in mind, the literacy crisis in America takes on enormous proportions as non-proficiency in language impacts all areas of study and application that, ultimately, inhibit the capabilities of secondary students when they enter the labor market. Students with language and literacy deficiencies ultimately find themselves with lifelong disadvantages.
Given the questionable effectiveness of AR in making a difference in literacy skills and student test scores in the secondary setting, some educators and policymakers are demanding increased funding from the federal government to support improvements in the utilization of AR. This of course, raises the question as to whether increases in funding would even make a difference. In a recent study, researchers at the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (2008) investigated the impacts of Reading First funding in 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 in some 17 school districts across 12 states. Reading First funding was, of course, part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. With great fanfare and political backing, the Reading First funding was expected to result in statistically significant literacy improvements. The researchers found, however, that across all 17 participating sites in the study there were no statistically significant improvements or impacts for student reading comprehension test scores (Gamse, 2008, p. 1). The conclusive point is that throwing money at a problem does not solve the problem. In fact, when resources are directed towards a policy that has not been proven viable, the cost/benefit equation must be evaluated in terms of opportunity costs – lost opportunities to improve education in other areas, to be more exact. Therefore, given the many questions surrounding the effectiveness of AR in improving reading proficiency, policymakers and educators should think twice before asking for millions of dollars to support more implementations of the AR system.
Based on the synthesis of scholarly literature, some gaps become evident in the research. Most notably, while some evidence has been provided to show that AR helps encourage more reading for secondary students, questions yet remain concerning differences in the impact of AR across the following variables: gender, race, and ethnicity. Thus, far too little data is provided as to whether or not there are statistically significant differences in STAR reading and End of Quarter Reading EQT assessments prior to and after the implementation of AR as a reading intervention tool by a group of proficient versus non-proficient. In addition, the research does not adequately address the basic issue and question of whether measured improvements (i.e., STAR reading and End of Quarter Reading EQT) assessments differ for proficient and non-proficient readers.
In light of the extant literacy crisis, the gap in the research is of particular importance. In other words, if implementation and utilization of AR in the secondary setting are yielding positive STAR measurements and assessments primarily as a function of reading proficiency improvements for students with grade-level competency or higher, then results of studies may be skewed. A similar gap exists in the research with respect to the quantity of books read. The majority of research, more exactly, does not distinguish between STAR reading and End of Quarter Reading EQT assessment scores for proficient and non-proficient readers. These issues become valid topics for additional research concerning the effectiveness of AR in improving reading proficiency and literacy.
As for salient shortcomings that should be avoided, Sutton (2012) failed to account for the fact that some reading facilitators and/or consultants may lack proper training in literacy instruction. Reading proficiency results might, therefore, not be a function of a reading program like AR being deficient by design, but, rather, the inadequacies and weaknesses of the facilitator and/or consultant may be the main or primary reason for measured system failures with AR.
Along similar lines, commercial-based programs do not ensure that all students receive adequate and/or equal instruction time. This is an especially important point in light of the findings of Pitcher, Martinez, Dicembre, Fewster, and McCormick (2010) which, again, showed that the main reason that students were not receiving reading comprehension instruction appears to be due to the lack of teacher training and skill in this area. Results of AR, STAR testing should account for these types of variable factors. These types of oversight must be avoided in conducting the research of the current study.
Huang (2012) failed to compare the students' standardized testing scores after they were exposed to the AR program. Additionally, given the potential problems with self-reporting tools (i.e., reporting bias, self-deception, intentional deception), it is important for the researcher to supervise the self-reporting process. This can help students realize the importance of completing the self-report accurately. Yet, Huang (2012) also failed to supervise the self-report processes. Therefore, the researcher’s findings could very well be completely invalid and/or unreliable – that is, non-repeatable. This renders a study unscientific and virtually worthless for advancing progress in the fight against illiteracy in the United States. Most importantly, these types of oversights should be avoided in the current study.
In addition to the above weaknesses, a number of the studies reviewed, such as Moyer and Williams (2011) were primarily designed according to an ethnographic investigation scheme. Participants were observed and allowed to provide open-ended responses to questions about their reading experiences, usage of AR, and more. This approach to research is based on qualitative tradition. As such, it becomes highly subjective – that is, driven by the basic assumptions and values of the investigator. This type of research, therefore, tends to lack the precision and validity of the quantitative analysis. With this in mind, the current study is designed to avoid the potential pitfalls of qualitative inquiry by utilizing quantitative assessment tools, methods, and measures.
As for some notable strengths that should be considered and/or followed in the current study, Sutton's research design was exemplary in terms of the basic research design, sample selection, and data collection procedures. With respect to the basic design, Sutton utilized one group pretest-post-test design to assess the effects of a commercial reading intervention program. Sutton's sampling method was also a strength as it was both simple and rigorous such that it was representative of the targeted population. Therefore, the findings of the researcher's study were far more likely to be generalizable. Finally, the researcher was careful in the data collection procedures to respect the privacy and identities of participants. Confidentiality was assured with hard copies being locked in a file cabinet (Sutton, 2012, p. 48).
As for a critique of the literature for controversial methodological decisions, quantitative research methods generally provide a more precise and valid measurement of variables. This represents an important recognition when it comes to measuring student reading proficiency. Many qualitative measurement approaches, on the other hand, are subjective in nature and can lead to interpretive errors of the data. In the Huang (2012) study concerning the effectiveness of the Accelerated Reader program on middle school students, the researcher's primary assessments were AR surveys and semi-structured interviews. In effect, the surveys were based on a self-report procedure. Yet, self-report measures are notorious for being subject to inaccuracies and biases. In fact, as the commonly understood halo bias holds, students in Huang’s study were very likely to say what they believed the researcher and/or their teacher wanted to hear. Thus, the conclusive point is that qualitative assessment tools should be utilized with caution for the potential inaccuracies and biases they can engender. In other words, these tools may not measure what they are supposedly designed to measure. And what is more, when assessment tools are invalid, this leads invariably to unreliable, non-repeatable study results.
As a further observation, Huang (2012) and Cox (2012) based their studies on randomly selected students. While random selection can help researchers account for variables like gender, race, and ethnicity, this technique does guarantee that sample populations in a study are representative of the general population. Findings of the study may, therefore, not be fully generalizable to the U.S. population of secondary students. Even further, given the previously noted literacy gap for minorities, it becomes critical to account for race and ethnicity in the study sample population - something that was almost entirely absent in the entire set of scholarly articles reviewed. Once again, similar mistakes should be avoided in the current study.
Conclusively, the provided literature review paints a picture of the literacy crisis in the United States and the importance of providing a comprehensive and well-designed quantitative test of the Accelerated Reader program. Again, the fundamental problem addressed in the current study reads as follows: the problem to be investigated through this study is to determine the effectiveness of Accelerated Reader™ (AR) as a reading intervention tool in decreasing non-proficient adolescent reading achievement scores to increasing proficient adolescent reading achievement scores as measured on the STAR Reading Assessment.
With the basic problem statement in mind, the study has shown that more than two-thirds of eighth grade students read below grade level and about one-half of all twelfth graders do not possess basic literacy skills. Stated indirect numbers, there are 22 million secondary students in America with more than 6 million having significant literacy deficits (Haynes, 2011, p. 10). Yet, literacy instruction has been focused on the primary grades at the neglect of later literacy development for years, even decades. A significant literacy gap exists between white students and students of color and native students with just 13% of African-Americans, 16% of Hispanics and 21% of Native Americans scoring at or above grade level proficiency in reading. Through efforts like the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the federal government has tried to use legislative processes to make changes in literacy rates of American students of all ages. It must be re-emphasized, therefore, that Accelerated Reader (AR) is a software assessment tool used to monitor reading progress. It has been used in more than 75,000 schools since the 1980s. Yet, researchers are still debating the effectiveness of AR. Many teachers prefer a constructivist classroom approach, yet AR is based on the behaviorist model. The effectiveness of AR may be impacted by what teachers are required to do by a mandate with AR and what they actually prefer to do in the classroom. Additionally, AR is questioned because of its behaviorist assumptions which overemphasize short term gains for the sake of improving reading comprehension scores at the expense of encouraging reading as a life-long endeavor. Nevertheless, some researchers, like Pfeiffer (2011), have reported on claims of excellent academic results from the implementation of AR in Kansas schools. Others have found that AR did not improve student reading scores; it merely increased the amount of time that students read (Huang, 2012, p. 240). Moreover, the educator found that AR seems to consistently overrate the comprehension skills and abilities of students (Ginno, 2011, p. 19). Still, further, the educator found that the AR program encourages students to spend more time reading books at the expense of directly teaching them to read quality books at higher levels (Ginno, 2011, p. 20).
Most notably, gaps exist such that questions yet remain concerning differences in the impact of AR across the following variables: gender, race, and ethnicity. Far too little data is provided as to whether or not there are statistically significant differences in STAR reading and End of Quarter Reading EQT assessments prior to and after the implementation of AR as a reading intervention tool by a group of proficient versus non-proficient. Also, there is no noticeable accounting for the differences in outcomes for proficient and non-proficient secondary school readers. Thus, the following research questions are fully warranted: 1. Are there statistically significant differences in STAR reading and End of Quarter Reading EQT assessments prior to and after the implementation of AR as a reading intervention tool by a group of proficient versus non-proficient? 2. Does the quantity of books read predict STAR reading and End of Quarter Reading EQT assessment scores for proficient and non-proficient students? 3. For each gender, are there statistically significant differences in STAR reading and End of Quarter Reading EQT assessments prior to and after the implementation of AR as a reading intervention tool by a group of proficient versus non-proficient?
As a final comment, consideration has been given to the fact that the theoretical basis of AR is fundamentally behaviorist. This means that the system is designed to promote reading proficiency and literacy by means of stimulus and response. For many educators, behaviorism is perceived as an outdated approach to learning theory. Yet, as the work of Moyer & Williams (2011) suggested, AR can be utilized and integrated with constructivist learning theory. In the case study, in fact, students were encouraged to engage in the constructivist discovery learning process while also being guided by AR. In the broader scheme of the theoretical and conceptual basis of the current study, findings will, therefore, be tempered and qualified according to both the behaviorist model and Rumelhart's Interactive Reading Model. The advantage of this dual theoretical construct is that it provides a balance in perspective for interpreting the data from the field study. The behaviors and results of participants can be interpreted on the basis of the behaviorist stimulus/response formula and more comprehensively according to mental processing.
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