Sunday, May 04, 2008


By Diana L. Chapman

A student takes the Reading Counts test and fails.
The same student takes the test again and fails.
The student takes the test again, for the third and last time. Another fail. By now, this kid –despite having read the book – will receive no points for having done so and comes to dislike reading.

A student reads the book, Jane Eyre.
Another reads the book, Wuthering Heights.
Another reads the monster-sized novel, It.

All these tomes are hundreds of pages long, but some high achieving students who’ve read them refuse to take the Reading Counts test. It’s just too mundane for their senses.

The highly popularized Reading Counts system, which has been adopted at schools around the country, has worked for thousands of students, but for some kids, the disconnect between the testing, the reading and the classroom, makes me cringe. The tests are short, something like eight questions, and tend to address the smallest of details.

Some teachers like this because it helps them determine whether the student has actually read the book, or just watched the movie. This program, however, leaves me discouraged by its lack of creativity and depth –which to me is what English is all about.

What discourages me the most? The failure to address students who are never going to pass the quiz because they lack memory skills about specifics, such as what type of jam was sitting on the shelf the day so-and so began making preserves. They’ve read the book, but are punished for failing to get these types of questions that are neither analytical nor challenging, but memory-based.

Or this issue: my friend’s two daughters, whose heads are constantly buried in books, find the whole Reading Counts thing tedious, troubling and ridiculous; their father spends a good amount of time yelling at them to take the tests because, in this case, it counts for 20 percent of their English grade.

Many teachers swear by this program and absolutely love it. They see their students reading levels go up. That’s excellent. I don’t doubt for a moment that it works for scores of students. But I have two fears using this system. One makes me wonder if there’s a lot less dissecting of books going on in English class, fewer and fewer book reports – and very likely -- less essay writing – the very thing that loans itself to spark the imagination and creative soul.

While some teachers and students find book reports boring and cumbersome, the funny thing is this: it makes kids write and think – and in English class -- that’s exactly what they need to do.

Having 15 low-level reading students to work with as a volunteer, I was puzzled that when we completed the book, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, more than ¼ could still not pass the test.

The sad tale was this: the kids thoroughly enjoyed themselves walking through the woods of England, drinking pots of tea and hanging out with a lion when we were reading. They challenged all the oddities they spotted, comparing their home life to England – such as, why do the English drink so much tea.

Another, they wanted to understand why the characters in the book, Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter, had to flee London during World War II and go live in the countryside with their uncle. These – low-end readers --if we want to call them that -- constantly asked questions which led us to debates – all sorts of debates, including one about Hitler.

Once we completed the book, we celebrated with an English tea so the kids could taste a bit of England with pots of jam, lemon curd and buttered scones. Then, they took the test.

The ¾ of the kids who passed were delighted. The rest hung their heads in shame. Finally, I went to look at the questions myself: one of which was where was the Sheepdog standing next to Aslan, the lion? What sheepdog? I must have read that book a dozen times and don’t remember a sheepdog. We went through the book and couldn’t find a sheepdog. In fact, no one in my family (who has read the book several times as well) could recall that character either.

To this day, I still can’t find the sheepdog!

From my end – a struggling student myself and a poor test taker -- my only saving grace was English. I loved those heated classroom debates of what an author was trying to say.
English made my dull school years come to life as we picked books apart, delved into characters, and discovered the depth of the plot. Often while science and math killed my grades, here was something I absolutely could cling to – reading and writing.

Had tests like this been a chunk of my grade, it’s likely; however, I too would have failed. In fact, it surprises me that my girlfriend, who for some curious reason I will never understand, enjoyed taking the Reading Counts tests and often didn’t pass them either!

The question: should students take tests like these? The answer is: “Yes,” for the students it does help. But for those students who will only see it as a repeated failure in their lives, why sacrifice what might stir their souls and march them in the right direction – book reports, essays and debates.

The job is to instill a love of reading. If we can do it using Reading Counts, then so be it. But as all educators know by now, no one size fits all. For those the program fails, we must seek – and it’s an absolute must – another path to take them to the road of reading.

That is, after all, one of the biggest steps a kid will ever take toward carving out a successful future.