EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT/Dumb and dumberest
Watch out. Your constituents are getting dumber, at least according to the latest national literacy test. I’m not talking about the 30 million people who struggle with basic reading or even the 11 million adults who are not literate in English. I’m talking about our best educated adults, whose ability to perform more than simple tasks has declined.
The good news is that 84 percent of all Americans 16 years and older basically are literate, a percentage that has held steady for two decades. That means they can interpret appliance warranty instructions, write a letter explaining an error on a bill and calculate how much money can be deducted from a bill if it is paid on time.
The measurements are based on a comparison between a recent National Center for Education Statistics assessment of national literacy and a 1992 survey, which resulted from the National Literacy Act. The recent literacy survey tested people 16 or older in their homes to determine how well they could read and comprehend short texts and documents and perform simple calculations.
Rather than showing a decline among all Americans — who actually were better at handling quantitative tasks, such as calculating numbers on tax forms or bank statements — the results serve more as an indictment of the value of a college education. As you would expect, going to college adds a few literacy points — 98 percent of college-educated adults are basically literate. But, today, fewer college graduates can explain the difference between two types of employee benefits or use a bus schedule to determine an appropriate route. College grads dropped five points in the “intermediate literacy level,” from 89 percent in 1992 to 84 percent today.
Worse, however, if you ask a college graduate to critically evaluate a legal document, interpret a table about the relationship between blood pressure and physical activity or distinguish between the viewpoints in two editorials, only 31 percent pass at the highest “proficient literacy level” versus 40 percent in 1992. That compares to the fewer than 10 percent of high school students who are proficient at comprehending what they read or performing simple math skills.
Declining math and science test scores are only a symptom of a larger reading problem. One California high school chemistry teacher described his students’ problem this way in a U.S. News and World Report article: “They think, ‘My eyes passed over the page, and I pronounced all the words.’ They don’t notice that they really didn’t get it.”
Reading may be fundamental, but it also is the fundamental problem. And, it’s no wonder. Reading complex material is not easy and requires focus, thinking and reasoning — the same skills required of people you hire and hope for in your constituency.
The national literacy tests should serve as fair warning. If we don’t “get it,” and improve our reading abilities, our communities will be like the children who failed reading in the first grade: held back.