The Forgotten Point

With all the furor about inequality of income, inequality in education, and statistics being tossed out about how poorly minorities do on standardized tests, maybe all the experts and education consultants ought to take a hard look at some basic facts. The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 37% of U.S. high school seniors could read proficiently and less than 25% were proficient in mathematics. Interestingly enough, in 2018, roughly 37% of Americans had a bachelor’s degree.

The bottom line is fairly simple. If a student isn’t proficient in reading and mathematics, the odds are extremely high that they won’t do well college or in most high-paying fields. Not only that, but roughly half of adolescents and young adults with criminal records have reading difficulties. Similarly, about half of youths with a history of substance abuse also have reading problems.

Study after study has shown that the vast majority of students who don’t learn to read well in grade school never will catch up, which is borne out by the fact that 63% of high school seniors still can’t read proficiently. This isn’t helped by the fact that high school students have moved from reading to other leisure entertainment venues over the last 50 years. In 1970, 70% read from magazines or books daily; today the figure is 16%, and reading bits and pieces from a computer screen isn’t the same as reading a book.

In addition, individuals who develop reading skills are far more likely to develop writing skills, and the decline in writing skill among students entering college is at least partly, if not largely, linked to the decline in reading – both reading required in school and reading for pleasure or self-education.

As I’ve noted in other blogs, basic reading and writing are skills that need to be learned before the brain’s linguistic centers mature, which generally occurs in the mid-teens – certainly well before students enter college. What politicians and bureaucrats – and too many activists – tend to overlook is that mastery of the basic skills of reading and mathematics at an early age is far more important than all the furor over tests, GPA, social/economic inequality… or even a broad curriculum or cultural diversity.

Admittedly, students who come from higher economic backgrounds have a tremendous advantage because their background boosts the skills and referents essential to become a proficient reader. But as certain schools have demonstrated, those skills have been successfully taught to the most economically disadvantaged children. The larger problem is that too much is being “taught” too early to far too many students who don’t have the linguistic skills to really grasp that knowledge… or to learn material on their own, which becomes increasingly important in secondary and higher education.

The furor over tests such as the SAT or ACT misses a fundamental point. The test scores reflect, not just raw intelligence, but also the ability to process the material swiftly and accurately. Since most tests are timed, students who cannot read quickly and well and calculate quickly and accurately are penalized and classified as less able. And, unfortunately, they’ll be “penalized” for the rest of their life, because employers want jobs done quickly and well. Slow readers and calculators may be accurate, but in the real world time is money.

The solution doesn’t lie in removing or changing standardized tests, or in fiddling with college admission criteria. It lies in improving those two basic skills at a young age, and I don’t see the many educators or any politicians on any level addressing that in a meaningful or useful way. Until it is, all the proposed reforms involving colleges and higher education are essentially rearranging the same old flawed furniture.

4 thoughts on “The Forgotten Point”

  1. Tim says:

    You be pleased to learn that Canada at least requires a written test as part of the immigration process.

    The young person I knew who was applying from the UK was very worried as they had not written anything by hand for years except their signature.

    He did OK but then I realised I rarely write anything by hand nowadays except letters of condolence as these seem to need it. An email would just not be right.

    But do future generations really need to write fluently by hand? When did you last use a typewriter for your scripts?

    1. When I wrote about writing, I didn’t just mean hand-writing. I meant the process of using words to communicate, explain, educate, or entertain. It’s not the tool as much as the way it’s used. I started using a typewriter as much as I could as a student, well before even the most basic personal computers existed. For the most part, most of my emails, except the very shortest ones, read like letters, or reports. I still correspond with some people by mail, but because my handwriting is terrible and I get writer’s cramp easily, those letters get typed up and printed on a computer system.

  2. Ryan Jackson says:

    Sadly many companies enforce a lack of quality as well which further pushes down those who may be accurate but a bit slower.

    Company I used to work for had an… interesting way in how they handled cases of Credit Fraud. Once upon a time each case was handed off to a specific agent/investigator. They were responsible for the case open to close and so had to be accurate because it was all on them, and fast, because they had a very large case load and had to finish these quickly.

    They have moved to an “assembly” line approach where anywhere from 3 to 10+ agents touch a case. They are instructed to blindly trust that the prior agents did the work correctly. The metrics they are held to become 60% Quality of Work and 40% Speed of Work.

    But when you look into the reality. The number of cases that get audited for Quality of Work is something like 1%. Further when an Audit takes place they only look at the actions of one specific agent and so do not report or look for other errors that may have occurred.

    So you have an environment where Agents understand that no matter what, working faster will help them, but working accurately? Honestly, unless you are truly failing there is an almost zero chance of you getting noticed or facing any type of consequence for your errors.

    So the people who succeed are the ones who can skim and read quickly, where as those who might be more methodical will inevitably come up short.

  3. M Kilian says:

    Well said, as with many problems that face the world, it is better to make an attempt to resolve the root cause.

    Trying to only treat symptoms than taking preventative or proactive measures is far less efficient and effective, and puts a great burden on attempts to move towards parity befitting posterity.

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