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Selling to the Elhi Market: Part 1, Reading Incentive and Assessment Programs

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Selling to the Elhi Market:
Part 1, Reading Incentive and Assessment Programs


by Linda Carlson


Schools are an important
market for many publishers, but getting your books into the classroom or the
school library can be a lot more time consuming than A-B-C.


Books get promoted to the K–12
market in the United States in three major ways:


through reading incentive and
assessment programs

by approval for supplementary use

by adoption for curriculum or
classroom use


Today, an estimated 60,000
American and Canadian schools use a reading incentive and assessment program
that provides a way to quantify students’ reading progress for the
all-important state achievement tests and the requirements of the U.S. No Child
Left Behind Act. This article focuses on those programs, specifically the two
that are most popular: Accelerated Reader (AR), sold by the Wisconsin-based
Renaissance Learning; and Scholastic Reading Counts (SRC), offered by the New
York publisher Scholastic Inc., which also sells books through school reading
book clubs, book fairs, and traditional trade channels. Next month, we’ll
examine school sales via approval and adoption.


Why are these programs important
to publishers? Because so many schools now evaluate kids according to the
number of points they accumulate by reading AR- or SRC-rated books. This means
that schools are less likely to buy unrated books, regardless of the value of
their content or quality of writing. Obviously, it also means that an AR or SRC
rating and quiz are almost guaranteed to increase the school and public library
sales of your titles.


How does this work? Here’s the way
a western Washington teacher explains her district’s use of Accelerated Reader:


September and then at intervals through the academic year, students take a
computerized reading test provided by AR, which assesses each child’s current
reading ability level. In this teacher’s third-grade class in early 2007,
ability levels ranged from 1.6 to 2.6 (reading at least at the first grade,
sixth-month level) to 5.2–7.6 (reading at least at the fifth grade,
second-month level, and up to the seventh grade, sixth-month level). Kids are
expected to select AR-rated books at their level or higher.


Each time
a child reads a book and passes an AR-formatted quiz, the child earns an
AR-determined number of points, starting with 0.5 for beginner books. Kids are
recognized as they accumulate points: in this classroom, there’s a bulletin
board and a sticker is added next to a child’s name for each five points
earned. Twice a year there’s a school-wide assembly to present certificates to
the students who have earned the most AR points.


As this teacher notes, “To some
competitive kids, if it isn’t an AR book, it’s like reading for nothing.”


Incentives in both AR and SRC
programs vary by classroom, school, and district. Some kids receive candy or
plastic toys for achieving a certain point level or are entered in drawings for
other prizes. Both Accelerated Reader and Scholastic Reading Counts sell a
variety of prizes, from 29-cent buttons to $18.99 backpacks. Most Accelerated
Reader prizes are imprinted with the company’s name. Many Reading Counts prizes
feature licensed characters, such as Clifford the Dog, that appear in
Scholastic books.


Kids’ AR and SRC ratings and point
totals are often indicated on report cards. A school or district’s overall
improvement in reading many also be reported with evaluation software that both
companies provide (included with AR and purchased separately with SRC). This
software allows extensive analysis of reading performance: by classroom, by
school, and by grade level. These kinds of evaluations and documentation of
progress meet many states’ mandates for “outcome” tests.


Four Steps Toward Sales


Getting your book into schools
that use Accelerated Reader or Scholastic Reading Counts involves several
steps. First, the AR or SRC editor who selects titles for rating and quizzes
has to see your book—when you send an unsolicited copy, when you respond to the
editor’s request for a review copy, or when the editor happens to learn of the
book and buys it.


Selected titles are then rated, or
“leveled,” by typical academic grade. Accelerated Reader does this using the
assessment program’s proprietary software, ATOS. Reading Counts does it with
the Lexile Framework, an analysis tool marketed since 1984 by MetaMetrics,
Inc., of Durham, NC. Besides considering reading difficulty, those who do the
leveling also take into account which age group would be most interested in a
book’s content, which is why it’s possible for the same book to have one level
for AR and another for SRC. For example, Newbery honoree <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Hattie Big Sky
written by Kirby Larson and published by Delacorte, has an ATOS reading level
of 4.4 (fourth grade, fourth month) and a Reading Counts level of 6.3.
Similarly, National Geographic’s <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Remember Little Bighorn
is rated 7.1 by
ATOS, and 9.5 by SRC. Sinclair Lewis’s <span
has an ATOS rating of 7.8 and a
Lexile of 9.


The usual third step: the company
writes a quiz for the title.


How many copies you sell into the
school or public library market will depend on a fourth factor: whether schools
buy the quiz. Public libraries often list the AR- and SRC-rated titles they own
and indicate the local schools that own the quizzes for these books, but the
libraries themselves do not buy quizzes. (Home-schooled students can read their
own or library copies of Reading Counts–rated titles and buy the quizzes.
Accelerated Reader quizzes are not sold to individual home-schooling families.)


Kids have no way to earn points
through their school’s program unless the school has purchased the quizzes for
the books the kids have read. Both companies charge slightly less than $3 per
quiz; there are some minimum purchase requirements, quantity discounts, and
package prices. See “Concerning Those Quizzes,” below, for related information.


What You Can Do


How do you get your titles rated
by AR and SRC? You could wait and hope that so many teachers will ask for
ratings and quizzes that the companies will initiate the process—but let’s
assume most PMA members prefer a proactive approach.


by understanding which books are eligible.


Accelerated Reader works with
titles that are expected to have nationwide appeal, whether introductory
picture books or books (including many adult trade titles) that are appropriate
for senior high school students. It does not create quizzes for alphabet books,
anthologies, atlases, dictionaries, or similar references. It reviews newly
published titles and will consider backlist titles if it receives frequent
customer requests regarding them.


Reading Counts selects books that
are expected to have long-lasting appeal and can be “Lexiled.” This means
fiction and nonfiction with standard text—no reference books, joke books, or
workbooks. Poetry, because of its nonstandard punctuation, is also difficult to
evaluate with Lexile. Quizzes for selected titles are completed within six
weeks, on average. Books licensed or purchased by Scholastic for its
elementary-school book clubs are likely to have quizzes written immediately,
because Reading Counts markets quiz packages matched to each issue of certain
book clubs’ flyers.


Within a week or two of receiving
review copies of your title, the AR staff will probably have decided whether
the book will be leveled, and quizzes will be written for some leveled books.
Publishers are not notified about AR’s decisions, but Renaissance Learning
spokesperson Geri Romens says it’s fine to check on the status of a title by


your title is “quizzable” (in other words, not an ineligible text such as
poetry or a joke book), but AR has decided not to write a quiz for it, you have
two options:


Submit sample text from the book
and ask to have the book’s reading level and point value determined with
Accelerated Reader’s proprietary ATOS Readability Formula (see <span
This makes it possible for teachers to evaluate student performance using
quizzes either the publisher or teachers create.

Work through the Publisher Aligned
Quiz Development program, currently run by Christina Sering (see “Concerning
Those Quizzes,” below). If you believe that your book will be so popular in
schools that at least 120 quizzes will be sold within two years (that may mean
sales to as many as 120 districts), you can contract with Accelerated Reader to
have a quiz created. If sales are lower than expected, you will eventually be
billed for each of the 120 quizzes not sold (currently, about $2 per quiz).


This program is one reason that AR
ratings and quizzes are promoted on some publishers’ Web sites and in their
catalogs. But a publisher may also promote AR quizzes because it has become an
authorized reseller. Since AR sells quizzes to publishers at only 10 percent
off, the primary reason to become a reseller is to increase the marketability
of your titles to schools and libraries, rather than to make money directly.
Other authorized resellers include Follett Library Resources, Perma-Bound
Books, and Tandem Library Group (formerly Sagebrush Books).


Through the Publisher Aligned
program (which is identified on the Accelerated Reader site as “Publisher
Sponsored Quizzes”), quizzes are usually completed within 60 to 90 days of a
book being submitted. For titles that AR selects to rate, quiz-completion time
depends on length and genre. Quizzes for extremely popular books (think Harry
Potter) are top priority. The quiz list is updated every Thursday in the AR
Quiz Store (www.renlearn.com/store).


Scholastic declines to write a quiz for your book, you have three choices:


Check the Lexile Book Database to
see if your book has already been evaluated. If so, you’re free to promote its
level to educators and in your catalog.

License the Lexile Analyzer to
determine your book’s reading level and advertise this level.

Suggest that teachers use the
sample Analyzer available free at lexile.com to evaluate your book. This is
probably practical only with a niche publication.


Any of these options makes it
possible for teachers who have evaluated their students’ reading ability with
Scholastic Reading Inventory software (which is purchased separately from
Reading Counts) to create their own quiz using the Reading Counts template. The
Analyzer helps teachers determine what supplemental reading (your trade titles,
for example) match students’ reading skills.


To Submit Titles


Accelerated Reader:


Send two samples of a recent,
finished book (no galleys or ARCs) to:


Nancy Skorczewski

Title Selection Coordinator

Renaissance Learning, Inc.

2911 Peach Street

Wisconsin Rapids, WI 54495

715/424-3636, ext. 4315



Include a cover letter that lists
distributors (especially school library distributors), awards, and reviews.
When AR selects books for quiz development, Skorczewski says it considers such
factors as:


national awards such as Newbery
and Caldecott

multiple positive reviews from the
national publications used by school librarians, such as <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>School Library Journal
,Horn Book,Kirkus,
and Book Links

recommended reading lists, such as
those from states, Junior Library Guild, and VOYA (Voices of Youth Advocates)

popularity of authors

continuing popularity of series

frequent customer suggestions


If you click through to “Quiz
Store” on the Accelerated Reader site and select “Recommended Reading Lists,”
you’ll see other factors—including Oprah and Reading Rainbow endorsements—that
are important.


Scholastic Reading Counts:


Send two copies of the finished
book to:


Managing Editor

Scholastic Reading Counts!

525 Broadway, 11th Floor

New York, NY 10012


The program creates about 2,000
quizzes a year, and the editor selects many of the books by reading reviews in <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>School Library Journal

and other library trade publications and reviewing awards program winners. Your
cover letter should cite the same points that interest Accelerated Reader:
reviews, awards, inclusion on reading lists, and whether this book is part of a
popular series or by a well-liked author.


Linda Carlson has
determined that her own most recent book, <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest

(University of Washington Press), has a Lexile rating comparable to books by
Thoreau, Dreiser, and Kate Douglas Wiggin and an ATOS rating comparable to
books by Carl Sandburg and Sinclair Lewis.




Concerning Those Quizzes


For schools like the
Scottsdale elementary school that has 8,000 Accelerated Reader titles, the quiz
purchase is another significant expense, in addition to the software with its
school fees (currently $2,800 for new customers, according to the AR Web site)
and annual per-student fees ($4 apiece, but there’s a $1,000 minimum). The
startup fee covers student reading assessment software, software for running
quizzes, a certain number of AR’s 100,000 quizzes, and provisions for adding
500 teacher-created quizzes to the computer programs. (AR doesn’t encourage
teachers to create their own quizzes: Christina Sering [<span
publisher account representative, says these locally written quizzes may not
have the same quality as AR’s tests. However, the 500-quiz allowance permits
schools to create quizzes for older or niche titles, such as local history
books, for which AR does not perceive a significant demand.)


Reading Counts currently
offers more than 38,000 quizzes. The $699 starter pack includes the software
that creates unique tests for each student, a school site license, and seven
quiz collections (for a total of 210 quizzes). The Value Pack includes 34 quiz
collections. Teachers can create an unlimited number of their own quizzes—for
niche titles, for example, or for a magazine or newspaper article—using a
provided software template. Evaluating and reporting students’ reading levels
requires an additional purchase, the Scholastic Reading Inventory, a
proprietary Lexile-based assessment program that costs $2,950 for the first 200
students and $299 for each incremental 50 students.


If Scholastic creates a
quiz for your book, it will probably also sell the title. Schools can buy one
or both. If the book is published only in paperback, Scholastic makes a
library-bound Reading Counts edition available. According to Diane Glass, the
product marketing manager for Reading Counts and Scholastic Reading Inventory (<span
Scholastic buys books for Reading Counts through the educational book jobber
that also handles the rebinding rather than buying directly from the publisher.




Side Effects May Include
. . .


If anything that gets kids
to read has value, there can’t be any question that Accelerated Reader and
Reading Counts are worthwhile. Right?


Not according to some
academics, authors, publishers, and parents. They complain that kids pass up
important books that offer few (or no) AR or SRC points in favor of others that
carry more points but may be less interesting, of lower quality, or of no
lasting value—Jurassic
rather than <span
, for example.


Another concern: Some kids
skim books, gathering only the facts they expect to be tested on, so they can
hurry on to the quizzes and earn their points. Others worry that these programs
encourage kids to read only for the material rewards—the stickers, the pizza
party, the trophies—and not for fun.


Other issues: These
programs, intended to help kids select appropriate materials for independent
reading, are the only reading curriculum being offered by some teachers;
eventually the AR and SRC criteria may influence what is published; and quizzes
are sometimes poorly written. Writing in the <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Authors Guild Bulletin
, one author
claimed that he couldn’t pass the AR test on his own book.


Ask a teacher about these
incentive programs, and you may hear more reasoned responses, especially if
you’re talking to someone with a large class whose students have wildly
divergent reading skills. As a public school teacher points out, with the
standard reading curriculum, a child reading at or below grade level may be
frustrated beyond measure, while a classmate who reads way beyond grade level
is bored to tears. As she and other teachers have pointed out, AR and SRC let
kids read and get feedback at their own level. Another plus: Students can select
their own material, instead of being limited to selections in the anthologies
typically used in language-arts classes.




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