Computer software packages that rate literature by the length and complexity of the words and sentences can help teachers assess the level of difficulty of the books their students are reading. But those programs have come under fire for taking a formulaic approach to an area of education that in many ways defies easy characterization: literary value.

Some teachers say the programs encourage students to read more by broadening the number of age-appropriate books that can be recommended to students far beyond what any single teacher can know. Teachers also say the quizzes in the programs help improve students’ reading comprehension. The programs are particularly attractive to teachers in school districts where reading is well below grade level and any type of motivation is appreciated.

But other teachers and educators say the programs—which can cost from $400 to $3,000—have serious flaws. For example, they give more points for longer books, regardless of the sophistication of the content. As a result, one program called Scholastic Reading Counts! rates Tom Clancy’s novel Clear and Present Danger as having 51 points on the difficulty scale, whereas the Greek classic Antigone rates a 5. This comes about largely because the Clancy novel is about nine times as long as the Greek play.

Parents suspect that by putting Clancy on the same scale as literature, the programs also give students the option to avoid serious, time-tested classics. And it’s possible to cheat the system, one student said, by passing the test about the book without reading the book at all.

Nonetheless, the programs have their supporters in all elements of the school system who value the extensive book lists appropriate to grade and reading levels that the programs generate. These lists anticipate the interest on the part of many states in developing reading lists and posting them on the web as a resource for parents, teachers, and students.

For information about two of the leading software packages, visit the web sites of Advantage Learning Systems Inc. (http://www.advlearn.com/ar), which publishes Accelerated Reader, and Sagebrush Corp. (http://www.econoclad.com/news/reading.html ), which publishes Scholastic Reading Counts!.