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Literacy levels among the educated must not continue recent decline

How to explain the jury verdict, a verdict with no evidence to support it.

A report, originally published on the Modbee.com

After years of hand-wringing about literacy in the United States, Congress passed the National Literacy Act of 1991. The aim was to make improved literacy a priority.

The federal government did a base-line assessment of national literacy in 1992. Now, the government has released the first follow-up. The results are a big disappointment.

Overall, literacy has remained flat. In 1992, 83 percent of the population 16 and older were at basic literacy or above. That remained virtually the same in 2003 (84 percent).

The bigger disappointment is that literacy is slipping at every level of education. Educated Americans remain literate, but their capability in processing complex information is declining.

That presents a quandary. Should we put our efforts into bringing the 17 percent of illiterate or barely literate adults up to basic literacy? Or should we focus on improving the literacy of those who will graduate from high school, college or postgraduate institutions? In an ideal world, we would do both. But the more alarming dip is in the educated population. We can more easily reach those individuals.

Part of the problem is that our culture is more oral and visual. With television, cell phones, video games, etc., people increasingly deal with flashes of information. Educational institutions must swim upstream to get students to interpret and analyze lengthy, difficult passages of words.

To see the problem in stark form, look at what's happened to college graduates in the past decade.

They remain literate: 98 percent are at basic literacy or above (it was 99 percent in 1992). That looks like there's no problem. "Basic" means a person can perform simple tasks such as interpreting instructions from an appliance warranty or writing a letter explaining an error made on a credit card bill.

But then look at intermediate literacy or above: 84 percent are at that level, compared with 89 percent in 1992. That's a five-point slip in skills such as explaining the difference between two types of employee benefits, using a bus schedule to determine an appropriate route or using a pamphlet to calculate the yearly amount a couple would receive for basic Supplemental Security Income.

But the biggest slip is at the proficient level: Only 31 percent are at this highest level, compared with 40 percent in 1992. That's a nine-point slip in mastery of complex activities such as critically evaluating information in legal documents, comparing viewpoints in two editorials or interpreting a table about blood pressure and physical activity.

We cannot afford to have our most educated population drop in complex literacy levels. The task falls mostly to our schools, but they cannot do it alone. Others, from parents to libraries, must limit the video games and make reading fun again.

Posted on 01/09/06