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In Some Schools, Summer Reading List Becomes Mandatory

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A children's end-of-school rhyme touts summertime freedom from pencils, books, and teachers' "dirty looks." But in some districts these days, that rhyme no longer rings true.

From Massachusetts to Georgia, school officials seeking to keep students' reading skills in tune over the summer break have turned the typically voluntary summer reading list into a required academic pursuit. And in some schools, students must take a test or write an essay on the books they've read with the results counted toward a grade in the fall.

For the most part, schools are making reading demands on middle and high school students and are keeping them modest: One or two books must be read over the course of a 10-week summer break.

"We want to keep the kids interested in reading," said Keith R. Arensman, the supervisor of instruction at Central Regional High School in Bayville, N.J. This summer is the first that the Central Regional district has instituted mandatory reading. For years, he said, the school had voluntary summer reading lists for most students and required reading only of those in honors classes.

"Their ability to read, comprehend, and enjoy literature impacts on all their subjects," Mr. Arensman said of students. "It impacts on their College Board scores and the [Scholastic Assessment Tests] they take and on the graduation test they take in New Jersey."

And while experts agree that reading is good for students, some don't agree with making the pursuit mandatory because it could send the wrong signal to children.

John Pikulski, the president-elect of the International Reading Association, a professional group that represents about 95,000 reading teachers and specialists, takes a dim view of requiring summer reading.

"I think anything you do because you have to do it is less likely to have an impact," said Mr. Pikulski, a professor of education at the University of Delaware. "Whenever I'm forced to do something, my attitude toward it becomes increasingly negative."

To create long-term benefits for students, he said, educators need to help students develop the reading skills that promote a motivation to read. "You can't mandate motivation."

Beyond Single Schools

For the most part, only small districts or individual schools require summer reading. But just this past spring, the nation's 12th-largest school district made such reading mandatory. The school board of the 143,000-student Fairfax County, Va., district, outside Washington, voted in May to require students in grades 5 through 11 to read one book over the summer.

Many different activities, including endless hours of television, occupy students' time during the summer months, said Fairfax County school board member Christian Braunlich.

"I think we needed to do what we could to give them a little structure ... a little bit of a reminder that your job as a student is to learn, and that isn't something you turn on and shut off depending on the day of the month and month of the year it is," Mr. Braunlich said.

In Fairfax County, students have a broad list of books from which to choose. The district's curriculum supervisors helped compile the list, which covers subject areas such as social studies, science, and language arts.

Students who will enter grades 7 and 8, for example, may choose from 27 fiction entries and 20 nonfiction titles, ranging from Little Women to I Am an American: A True Story of Japanese Internment. Students who have limited English proficiency have their own list.

The large enrollment in the Virginia district and the high student mobility prevent testing or some other in-class check of students' compliance with the reading requirement, officials there said. Instead, parents are asked to sign off that a student did the reading.

But in the 1,815-student Central Regional district in New Jersey, students entering grades 8 through 12 have to prove their knowledge gleaned from summer reading. Having selected one book from a list of about 20 titles provided to each grade level, students are required to write an essay that will be part of their first-quarter grades.

At the urging of students, the district even included on the book lists some of the titles taught during the school year, giving pupils a chance to get a leg up.

Mixed Feedback

School officials say they try to ensure that students have access to required books by choosing paperbacks or books that are available in the school or public library. But in Fairfax County, just three weeks into the summer vacation, Mr. Braunlich said one of his own children found the library cleaned out of reading-list books.

Such a situation raises the question of educational fairness, said Mr. Pikulski of the reading association. "If a district or a school were going to have a mandatory list, they really would have to be absolutely sure that every child had access to the books that are required," he said. "Otherwise, it's an enormous equity issue."

Mr. Braunlich said he has received mixed feedback from parents on the board's mandate. "I had one parent call very upset and angry. Her attitude was summer was a time kids should have off."

He said the mother told him her son had a busy summer including work and camp. Mr. Braunlich said he was not very sympathetic. "My answer is, 'You can read on the bus.'"

Of the one-book requirement, he said: "I don't think it's going to break anyone's back." Indeed, one parent told Mr. Braunlich that such a minimal requirement was laughable.

At the 1,500-student Randolph Junior-Senior High School in Randolph, Mass., students at the town's only high school have been required to read over the summer for a couple years. "So far things have gone very well," said James E. Watson, the headmaster of the public school south of Boston.

Mr. Watson said school officials involved parents, teachers, and students in the process and have gotten enthusiastic participants.

Students entering grades 7 through 10 must read at least two books from a list of six tailored for each grade level.

The summer book policy started after English teachers learned some students had not read at all during the summer. Officials found that the top students were reading but that not all of those performing at middle and lower academic levels were.

To ensure participation, the school has made up one test, including factual and critical-thinking questions, for each book on each grade level's list. Students are tested on the books they read, and those tests count for 10 percent of their first-quarter English grades.

Mr. Watson said it was too early in the program to have a sense of whether the summer reading has boosted students' skills.

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