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With the Help of Student Achievement Partners, National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers Declare Computers Better than Teachers at Choosing Books

So Renaissance Learning sends out this press release, to be picked up by newspapers that don't have enough staff left to cover education and investigate the Common Core State [sic] Standards. I blame Renaissance Learning, Inc. for plenty but not for the press release below. They are a for-profit institution, and this is what for-profit people do. At least the Sacramento Bee clearly labeled the source of this information. I blame the crew who labeled the Renaissance Learning Accelerated Reader readability formula as "a valid, reliable measure of test complexity." 

And for that we go to the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers who issued Supplemental Information for Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy: New Research on Text Complexity 

Remember: In 2005, the NGA received $19,895,248 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to push the Common Core. The Council of Chief State School Officers received $25,000,000 in 2004, $21,642,317 in 2007, and numerous smaller awards. And for public relations purposes, they always label this a "state effort." 

And guess who participated in this "new research" that is now a part of Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy? Student Achievement Partners, the outfit founded by Common Core architect, author, and consultant David Coleman, who now heads College Board. This education entrepreneur lists his teaching experience as tutoring when he was at Yale. 

In 2012 Student Achievement Partners has received $18 million from the General Electric Foundation "to assist states nationwide in implementing the Common Core State Standards" and $4,042,920 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation "to support teachers nationwide in understanding and implementing the Common Core State Standards"--plus another $2,490,430 "to grow capacity to support teachers and to strengthen operations." 

In fulfilling their obligations to General Electric and the Gates Foundation, Student Achievement Partners "assembled the contents of the site Achieve the Core, which offers a Guide to Creating Text Dependent Questions for Close Analytic Reading as well as a library of Close Reading Exemplars. Proceed at your own risk. 

According to the NGA/CCSSO statement: "The research that has yielded additional information and validated these text measurement tools was led by Jessica Nelson of Carnegie Mellon University, Charles Perfetti of University of Pittsburgh and David and Meredith Liben of Student Achievement Partners (in association with Susan Pimentel, lead author of the CCSS for ELA)." 

Susan Pimentel trained as a lawyer, and a recent gig participating in the new Stanford University enterprise Understanding Language, where she co-authored a Gates-commissioned paper on teaching English Language Learners. 

David and Meredith Liben describe their road to systematic phonics here and offer webinars on text complexity through ASCD, recipient in 2011 of $3,024,695 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation "to provide teachers and school leaders with specific information about the Common Core Standards, to develop and deliver technical assistance for purposes of successful implementation of the Standards at the district, school, and classroom levels." 

Jessica Nelson has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and, with Charles Perfetti has written on the neural basis of reading. Perfetti, also a psychologist, describes his research: "Comparisons of Chinese and English word identification processes are the heart of this empirical program and recent papers develop a theoretical model of Chinese word identification." 

Here's the definitive statement about text complexity from the Governors and Chief State School Officers, who explain that "The full report, Measures of Text Difficulty, and other resources, can be accessed on" 

The quantitative dimension of text complexity refers to those aspects—such as word frequency, sentence length, and text cohesion (to name just three)—that are difficult for a human reader to evaluate when examining a text. These factors are more efficiently measured by computer programs. The creators of several of these quantitative measures volunteered to take part in a research study comparing the different measurement systems against one another. The goal of the study was to provide state of the science information regarding the variety of ways text complexity can be measured quantitatively and to encourage the development of text complexity tools that are valid, transparent, user friendly, and reliable. The six different computer programs that factored in the research study are:


  • ATOS by Renaissance Learning
  • Degrees of Reading Power® (DRP®) by Questar Assessment, Inc.
  • Flesch-Kincaid (public domain)
  • The Lexile® Framework For Reading by MetaMetrics
  • Reading Maturity by Pearson Education
  • SourceRater by Educational Testing Service


Note: These factors are more efficiently measured by computer programs. Of course teachers sometimes find readability formulas somewhat helpful in their work with children. But in the end, choosing a book must be a negotiation between the child, the teacher, and the book. Behavioral psychology and computer science be damned.

In the end, teachers can't rely on readability formulas, and here's why. Renaissance Learning's ATOS, one of the computer programs factored into the study touted by the Gates lapdogs, offers Accelerated Reader, reading management software that promises teachers an easy way to let computers measure and keep track of what students read. This means that students must choose books in a computer-determined Zone, say, Grade 3.5 to 4.0. The student reads the book and takes a computer-delivered multiple choice test. The test results dictate the reading Zone allowed for her next book choice. Zones are determined by a readability formula that counts syllables and sentence length--resulting in the "valid and reliable" determination that The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Color Purple both have a text complexity of grade 4.

With over 100,000 titles in Accelerated Reader's data bank, there's lots to be discovered about a marketplace approach to literacy. The sample titles below show children's classics marching right alongside adult titles: Pulitzer Prize winners, bestsellers, and bodice rippers. Perhaps Faulkner in fourth grade is just the logical extension of the national mania for eliminating recess and instituting Pre-K reading requirements. Here's a sample of a few books classified according to the AR system:

  • Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit AR level: 4.0
  • Alice Walker. The Color Purple, AR Level: 4.0
  • H. A. Rey, Curious George Rides a Bike AR Level: 4.0
  • William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury AR level 4.4
  • E. B. White, Charlotte's Web AR Level: 4.4

With 93,000 of their 100,000 titles being fiction, Accelerated Reader must be sweating bullets to get in line with the Common Core exaltation of nonfiction.

I've done a good deal of research on the Accelerated Reader system, which you can find at Accelerated Reader: The Data Softshoe.

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Susan Ohanian

Susan Ohanian, a long-time public school teacher, is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Atlantic, Parents, Washington Monthly, The Nation, P...