Accelerated reading programs are programs intended to quantify the reading skills of elementary and middle school children through regular testing. Though there are several programs aimed at accomplishing this goal, the most prevalent by far is Accelerated Reader™ by Renaissance Learning, Inc. The programs are primarily based on quizzes and tests that students take after reading an assigned or chosen book. The quizzes are generally based on the narrative events within the book rather than literary complexities, such as themes and symbols. Books are generally rated based on the difficulty they present to readers of a given age and experience group.
Accelerated Reader's™ accelerated reading program is particularly notable because it assembles statistics on those who take the reading quizzes. These statistics can be used to make informed judgments on the difficulty level of a given book. If many children consistently struggle to do well on a quiz for a book, it is given a higher difficulty than books whose quizzes students perform well on. Accelerated reading statistics can also be used for research purposes, allowing researchers and educational policy specialists to compare the performance of students in different school districts and geographic areas. Such data can also be used to judge the performance of teachers, though this may not always be the case, as students often do their accelerated reading work independently.
While accelerated reading programs have been shown to be beneficial, they also have been subjected to some criticism. One aspect that critics find to be unsatisfactory is the fact that the programs tend to test the reader's memory by asking questions about characters, setting, and plot. They do not tend to ask questions that focus on comprehension or deeper themes. Those defending accelerated reading programs argue that developing the ability to understand the events and characters in books is an important first step to developing deeper analytic reading abilities at later stages in education.
The focus that accelerated reading places on recall over comprehension makes cheating an important concern. There are many online resources that offer brief and straightforward summaries of the plot, setting, and characters in many different books. Students can use such resources to gain all of the information they need to succeed on a test without ever opening the book, and there is no way to determine for sure that a student actually read the book. The use of such summaries partially undermines the benefit to the student and the statistical information gained from the use of accelerated reading programs. Other forms of cheating, such as flipping through the book while taking the test, can be prevented through teacher supervision and through the placement of strict time limits on each question.