How well can Johnny read?

by Andrew Maisel

Want to read something scary? First, be thankful that you can [read], because the next generation looks like it's going to have more than a little difficulty doing so. The recently released results of the 1994 NAEP test found three-quarters of all 4th and 8th graders "unable to read at the level necessary for solid academic performance." Two-thirds of high school seniors were similarly judged to have inadequate reading skills.

Hello?  Anybody in our schools listening?

This, in a nation that expects to successfully compete in a global economy, based on our superior technology? This, in a nation where higher than global average wage rates are justified based on superior education? This in the nation that won the Cold War? How long do we expect our competitive advantages to survive if we are raising a generation of functional illiterates? Hello? Anybody in our schools listening?

The truth is, everyone's scores went down

The test reported consistent declines in reading skills among white, black and Hispanic students, public and nonpublic school students, girls and boys. So we can't cite any particular segment of our society for drawing down otherwise fine results. The truth is, everyone's scores went down.

Who do you think will face the next glass ceiling?

That's not to say that everyone's scores were the same. Although the downward trend was true for all groups, there were substantial differences between segments. For example, girls had significantly higher average reading scores than boys across all three grade levels. And while the scores for high school seniors were down overall, the decline for boys was greater than it was for girls. Extrapolate that out for a few generations, and who do you think will be facing a glass ceiling?

The test results also disturbingly showed that the average proficiency of Asian and white students was significantly higher than that of Black, Hispanic and Native American students. Nationwide, 40 percent of white high school seniors, and 30 percent of Asian Americans were proficient readers, while only 12 percent of black and 18 percent of Latino students reached that level.

Private schools offer only temporary solace

How about those parents who claim they saw this coming, and opted for a private school for their children? In something of a vindication for those parents who have invested in private school education, nonpublic school students scored higher than public school students at all three grade levels. But private schools offer only temporary solace -- the scores of private school 12th graders declined just like their public school counterparts.

Law students are taught that when the facts are against you, attack the process. So what of the test? Perhaps some games were played with the questions, or the scoring? Nope. These test results are believed by experts to paint the most accurate picture available of the nation's educational system effectiveness. The NAEP tests have monitored the nation's K-12 students' academic performance since the 1970s, and are the only continuing nationally representative assessment of academic performance nationwide.

If Johnny can't read, none of us have much of a future

What's gone wrong with our education system? And I don't want to get into an argument with someone about all the other supposedly good things happening in our schools. The bottom-line is that a generation of high school graduates who have trouble reading is indicative of a failed education system. If Johnny can't read, he doesn't have much of a future in the 21st century. And neither do the rest of us.

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