Government officials exploited the busy holiday season to let slip some bad news. The reading proficiency of college graduates is declining, and it was already low.
According to a federal study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it, down from 40 percent in 1992. In other words, more than two thirds of college graduates, a full 69 percent, cannot perform this basic task.
Among graduate students, only 41 percent – down from 51 percent in 1992 – could be classified as “proficient” in prose, that is, reading and understanding information in short texts. How short? Mark S. Schneider, Commissioner of Education Studies, told the Washington Post the assessment was not designed to test understanding of Proust but “to test your ability to read labels.”
The test measures how well adults comprehend basic instructions such as computing costs per ounce of food items, comparing viewpoints on two editorials and reading the labels of prescriptions. According to the results, more than half of graduate students, a full 59 percent, are not proficient in reading prescription labels and other simple tasks one expects high-school students to be able to perform.
American Library Association president Michael Gorman, a librarian at Cal State Fresno, called the results “appalling” and “astounding.” Officials were at a loss for explanations.
“It may be that institutions have not yet figured out how to teach a whole generation of students who learned to read on the computer and who watch more TV,” said Mr. Schneider. Students do share the blame, but they have eager collaborators.
A Nation at Risk, the landmark 1983 report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education, noted the dumbing down of American education. It is a trend made worse by the regime of political correctness, which considers difficult books, especially those by dead white males, oppressive to students. Under social promotion, students deficient in reading are advanced to the next grade on the grounds that, if held back, they would not feel good about themselves. Higher education increasingly must conduct remedial education in English and math for students who are supposed to be the best and brightest. The new federal study confirms that the problems endure past college. The buck has to stop somewhere.
Employers have good grounds to test college grads for literacy. As for California policy makers, they should not be astonished by the results, and they should know what to do.
In grade school, phonics, not whole-language instruction, should be the preferred teaching method. Legislators should maintain the state’s high academic standards and even raise the bar. Political correctness and social promotion must be dumped. The state should maintain and strengthen the high-school exit exam.
California’s colleges should not have to conduct remedial education, but they should not escape scrutiny, especially when they are raising student fees and dishing out lavish raises to administrators. If more than two thirds of graduates remain deficient in reading, colleges must also be practicing a form of social promotion. Perhaps they accept the judgment of Mr. Schneider that current conditions are “a different kind of literacy.”
That is true. After all, what is illiteracy but “a different kind of literacy”? Read the writing on the wall, if you can.
K. Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director at the Pacific Research Institute.