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If American students are ever going to compete on an international level, or even become the well-informed individuals who will lead the next generation, are we going to have to step up our game and get them reading beyond what a grade-school child can handle?…

Have you ever thought that high school graduates today…well, just don’t seem to know or understand as much as they once did?

According to a new research report from the Urban Institute, such a thought is not simply a result of generational pride. Data from The Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) confirms the assumption that recent generations of high school students are not doing as well as they once were.

Take reading scores. As the chart below demonstrates, 4th and 8th grade reading scores have experienced an increase in the years since 1992. High school seniors, however, have experienced a steady decline in reading scores over the same time period.

NAEP Reading Trends since 1992

Is it possible that these falling scores are the result of diminished rigor in the high school curriculum?

Having recently dug up a curriculum manual for Texas high schools from 1922, I decided to explore this question by comparing its 9th grade reading recommendations with those the San Antonio Independent School District recommended for the 2015-16 school year.

Both syllabi included recommendations for poetry, fiction, short stories, drama, and non-fiction. Both syllabi implied that the books on the lists were simply suggestions, which might not necessarily be used in their entirety.

To give an idea of the difference between the two, I plugged the fiction titles from both lists into a text analyzer which measures reading difficulty. The results? Reading material in today’s freshman literature classes measures around a 5th grade level. In 1922, however, freshman literature fare often measured at an 11th or 12th grade level.

1922 vs. 2015 high school reading lists
When we see how the difficulty of reading material has declined in the last one hundred years, is it any wonder that high school reading scores have been trending downward over time?

If American students are ever going to compete on an international level, or even become the well-informed individuals who will lead the next generation, are we going to have to step up our game and get them reading beyond what a grade school child can handle?

Republished with gracious permission from Intellectual Takeout (2016).

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6 replies to this post
  1. Do remember that in 1922 fewer children attended high school, and those who did were pushed and encouraged by that parents to succeed. Parents wanted their children to be educated citizens, not simply trained mechanicals; the pattern now seems to be that the mothers (fathers, if present, are irrelevant) demand sports, cheerleading, absolute empowerment of the child and absolute contempt of any authority figure (note how grown women engage police with hostility over traffic stops and parking tickets), and giveaway degrees.

    The concept of church now is not the Reformation tradition nor Catholicism, which taught both the salvation story and reinforced the high Western culture, but sullen, resentful, manipulative, grasping, 501C apostles/ evangelists (sic) acquiring personal wealth through appealing to people’s lower natures.

    Even the best family’s book budget is less than the internet / satellite / cable budget, and the center of the home is neither the hearth nor the family kitchen table, but the huge television.

    A child usually (because there are exceptions) grow up to be what his parents raise him or her to be, a complete person (cf. Milton’s “On Education”) or an indolent, insolent sluggard whose day may well be centered on watching Scooby-Doo on a flatscreen (sic) in an apartment or trailer.

    Beyond all that, the most important election is for the school board election, who hire and fire, set taxes, set and the curriculum. That is also the most neglected election; perhaps the people (or The People, bless them) are too busy complaining to live up to their duties as parents and as a free people to vote.

    • Perhaps you have a few errors but I think it is the thought behind the read, that is the most important. I agree with you in the perceptions of what is happening with todays’ children. I see it with my own grandchildren.
      Thank you for your insight.

  2. Ye gads, Silas Marner, I can testify as to the horror of reading this book, having been given two days to read it, back when. That’s a long while ago. On the other hand may I assume reading is not as educative as in days gone by.

  3. “Reading levels”, quantified by linguistic complexity, are probably responsible for that sharp downtick in fourth-grade literacy between 2012 and 2015. That’s when elementary school began treating the development of reading skills as something like grinding levels in a software RPG, valuable only for the number you generate at the end of the tedious process.

    That said, Artemis Fowl and Harry Potter are what any kid with a still-breathing sense of curiosity would want to read anyway; Beloved and Mango Street are political tokens; The Chocolate War is a primer in why-bother-to-fight-it cynicism, the kind of thing you’d get if George R.R. Martin could bring himself to be concise. That leaves To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a properly Great Book, and Freak the Mighty, which is an excellent moral example highlighting the possibility of making differences among your peers complementary rather than oppositional. But both can easily be tackled by sixth grade, and ninth grade is really too late for the latter.

    Somewhere in between these two lists, Lord of the Flies replaced Silas Marner as the go-to book for Symbolism 101. Whatever happened to that? It was a superior choice, definitely – the only way I would teach a course on Silas Marner is to focus heavily on the question, “What if Dunstan came back?”

  4. So today’s eleventh and twelfth grade students are being expected to read books that are written at the fifth-grade level? It’s certainly possible to see that as a dumbing down of student ability. But it’s also possible to see it as a dumbing down of their teachers. They teach fifth-grade books because that’s the most they can handle. And one result is that many of their students are bored reading material so juvenile.

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