Arnold Kling  

College Illiteracy

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The Washington Post reports


Literacy experts and educators say they are stunned by the results of a recent adult literacy assessment, which shows that the reading proficiency of college graduates has declined in the past decade, with no obvious explanation.

"It's appalling -- it's really astounding," said Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association and a librarian at California State University at Fresno. "Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That's not saying much for the remainder."

Some more excerpts:


The test measures how well adults comprehend basic instructions and tasks through reading -- such as computing costs per ounce of food items, comparing viewpoints on two editorials and reading prescription labels. Only 41 percent of graduate students tested in 2003 could be classified as "proficient" in prose -- reading and understanding information in short texts -- down 10 percentage points since 1992. Of college graduates, only 31 percent were classified as proficient -- compared with 40 percent in 1992.

...Dolores Perin, a reading expert at Columbia University Teachers College, said that her work has indicated that the issue may start at the high school level. "There is a tremendous literacy problem among high school graduates that is not talked about," said Perin


I noticed this in the fall of 2004 when I taught my Economics for the Citizen course. Many students had great difficulty when I gave an assignment to read a book and write a paper on it. As a result, when I taught the course again this fall, I assigned two such papers.

I may or may not be able to give students any lasting knowledge of economics. But I certainly can give them practice with reading and writing.


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TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/417
The author at Moscow Education (Idaho) in a related article titled College Illiteracy writes:
    From The Washington Post: Literacy experts and educators say they are stunned by the results of a recent... [Tracked on December 28, 2005 12:37 AM]
COMMENTS (28 to date)
Marc Resnick writes:

I am not surprised at all by this. I teach engineers at the graduate and undergraduate level and I am constantly disappointed with their ability to critique and review papers. They may be excellent at applying formulas, running lab experiments or programming simulations, but in order to contribute to the real world, they need to be literate as well. Even at the PhD level, I find myself amazed at how little preparation they have. I suspect that they start to lag at the K-12 level and never recover.

John S Bolton writes:

The government is paying for too many people to go to college, thus continually increasing the aggression on the net taxpayer. There needs to be a cutoff on a standardized test, below which guaranteed student loans are not to be given.

Sudha Shenoy writes:

No explanation for the fall in standards? Didn't these students attend govt schools?

anglophobe writes:

I have finally returned to school after some years in the work force, and I am appalled by the quality of English found in my fellow students’ writings.
The blame really lies in two places:
1. K-12 schools not teaching proper writing skills. (Students need to learn grammar.)
2. Professors not demanding enough of the students’ English. The typical line "As long as the ideas are there."

James writes:

It used to be that these kinds of reports were in regard to maths skills. Apparently now the kids can't read or write either.

Dave Milovich writes:

It's immigration. The last paragraph of the Post article states that whites' scores are flat and blacks' scores are up 6%. The fourth-to-last paragraph states that Hispanics' scores are down 18%.

rakehell writes:

Immigration. I went to school with a lot of Asian kids who were math whizzes, but who had a lot of problems with literacy. A secretary I used to know wrote her immigrant boyfriend's college papers for him (she was from Hong Kong herself, but was more literate). He was an econ undergrad at the U of Washington. They have an option to do a BS econ degree there. It has more of a math focus than the BA. I bet they designed it largely for guys like him.

Timothy writes:

Hey now, many of us with Bachelor of Science degrees in Econ are perfectly literate. Immigration no doubt plays a part, but it's also true that basic English grammar is no longer taught in schools. I went to public school my whole life, in a good suburban area, but I didn't have to diagram a sentence until I took Grammar For Journalists in college.

Steve Sailer writes:

It's immigration. Not only are Hispanic scores down 18%, but the Hispanic proportion of the young adult population is rising quickly.

Folks, the government's acquiescene in massive illegal immigration is making America, on average, a less educated, more illiterate country. You may think that the benefits of illegal immigration, such as they are, outweigh the costs, but at least be honest about the costs.

Chris Bolts writes:

Well, what do you expect when the only English courses you have to take in college are ENG 101 and 102? Those courses are not designed to teach college students thoroughly to be proficient in critical thinking and applying the proper rules of grammar.

I wish I did get a BA in economics. I'm more of a literary person than a math person and would've appreciated a more intensive writing and speaking approach to economics.

Brian Pitt writes:

I earned a BA in economics and sociology in 2001; as recipients of econ degrees know, the BA econ program sparsely considers verbal ability. In fact, most programs in college pay an infinitesimal amount of time building oral and written proficiency; and forget about encouraging reading. Are we really suprised about the results of the study?

Norman Berger writes:

Its easy. Students aren't asked to read nor to write. What they do write isn't critiqued by a prof. UC Berkeley students study 6 hours per week. The school week ends Wed pm. Everybody is lazy.

Aidan Maconachy writes:

Well, I find it difficult to understand how literacy experts could be "stunned" by these results.

Government schools don't come close to providing the type of educational environment capable of developing the highest academic potential. Many of these schools - particularly those in urban areas - have horrendous problems with gang culture with attendant problems such as bullying, drug dealing and sexual intimidation. A great many students who attend public schools, do a lot of things on the premises that have nothing to do with actual academic endevors.

Recently in Toronto we had a well publicized incident involving a female student who had been sexually assaulted by a gang on an on-going basis, on school property and in establishments close to the school. This wasn't reported because the girl was afraid of the repercussions. According to those in the know, this is far from an isolated case.

How are kids expected to achieve academically when they are struggling with a climate of fear and intimidation; when any type of academic enthusiasm is viewed as a character flaw.

This isn't simply a matter of a new approach or a curriculum overhaul. Something serious needs to happen in terms of a radical restructuring of public education, because as matters stand such a decline in standards is unlikely to improve any time soon.

Randy writes:

I don't see any justification for doom and gloom in this.

First, our universities are educating more people than ever. Therefore, more students of lower intelligence are in the system. The question becomes, are those who are dragging down the literacy average better off or worse off? I think better.

Second, literacy is not a critical factor for performance in a society of specialists. I deal daily with programmers who speak and write english very poorly (they're not Americans). But they write code quite well. And because of the wealth they help us generate, we can afford to hire documentation specialists, who are very literate, but couldn't write a line of code to save their souls.

What does literacy mean? Could a construction worker write "The Stand"? Could Stephen King build a house? Does it matter?

Aidan Maconachy writes:

Points taken Randy. I taught ESL for a time and many of the asian students I taught had very poor skills in english and yet were winning math competitions hands down. Reading "Ulysses" with comprehension isn't any type of litmus test when it comes to functional abilities in specialized tec areas for example.

However, this is not simply a failure in the area of literacy. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) that involved students in 41 countries, provides a good objective overview of declining standards in U.S. education. The comparisons outlines in TIMSS are fair. Traditionally, the most common criticism of international studies is that it is unfair to compare our results to other countries because their national scores are based on a highly selective population. While this may have been true in the past, it is simply not valid in the case of the TIMSS study.

The results for grade 12 math places the average mark at 500. The U.S. stands third from the bottom of the ranking with a score of 461. Countries such as Lithuania, Iceland and the Czech Republic rate higher.

There has often been the argument to counter such results, that the upper echelon academic students in the U.S. system are the equal of their international peers. Yet when we look at the TIMSS tables for advanced math and science, the results are even more disappointing. In advanced science the grade average was 501, and the U.S. placed bottom with a score of 423.

Matt writes:

Point taken again, Randy. Can anyone quantify the loss from the drop in "literacy" rates? Maybe there has been a net gain. Furthermore, you could conclude that there are nominally fewer illiterates if prescription labels are misunderreadable.

Dan writes:

An illiterate population is a controllable population.

The problem started with Dewey's "See Dick Run" non-phonetic reading system. He knew that to get people to embrace socialism they would have to think they were educated but in reality be functional illerates.

It's worked like a charm. State schools from K through College now graduate degreed illiterate people.

K writes:

I'm with those like Aidan. How can an expert be stunned by news like this?

Maybe the reason large numbers of college graduates aren't literate is that the colleges confer degrees without requiring them to be literate.

The state of educational expertese in this nation is such that by year-end 2006 we will learn that experts are "stunned" that large numbers of high school graduates can't read well either.

My son graduated from a well regarded college. He had only basic reading skill and could not spell.

He is now 35. At Christmas he told me he has started private remedial instruction; adding that he finally knew that the instruction and good marks he received in public schools were a fraud.

resigned writes:

I'm also a public school brat whose only brush with grammer was when I took latin in high school. However, lack of spelling ability and grammer don't worry me as much in the modern era as much of lack on analytical reasoning ability, whether it be in mathematics, science, or the humanities. I've heard it from friends who are professors and have experienced it myself as a TA--there are a large number of students entering college who cannot or will not think analytically. And as a TA, we were almost powerless to flunk them. For example, I had a student who showed up to my class (physics for premeds), listened to his CD player for most of the class and cheated. I reported him , and even though he had a history of cheating (I talked with another TA who had him the previous semester) my class was investigated and nothing was done to the cheater. I also constantly had to deal with pressure from above not to give zeros to students, regardless of ability. For example, I might give a multiple choice exam, and offer partial credit if the person showed work. If they get all of the questions wrong and don't show any work, how can they expect anything other than an F? The difficulty of all of this is that it makes it very hard for a company or school to discriminate in hiring based on the grades of applicants. I think that it's just that today, for most higher paying jobs, a college degree is required, so more people are entering college. And the trends in watering down of curriculum that one sees in high school are simply being extended to college. Thus, graduate degrees will for a time become what distinguishes people and let's just hope that they don't fall as well...

matt writes:

Dan,

If an illiterate population is a controllable population, is a literate population uncontrollable? Do you think there is a direct correlation between literacy and political ideology? Exactly who was/is it that designed the K through college state schools so that people would embrace socialism? Who are the conspirators? Who's watching me? Give me their names! You must name names!

nn writes:

"resigned" focuses on the wrong question. The issue is Why won't companies and grad schools put a higher premium on students who make it through a demanding curriculum?

For the most part, engineering and math are more rigorous majors whose students are more strictly graded than those in the humanities. Yet students with poor grades -- say a C average from a VPI or Georgia Tech -- have a harder time getting jobs and grants than an A student in Woody Allen film studies from Southwest Northeast U. I would submit that even the verbal scores of students in good engineering departments are likely to be as good or better than those from the average Sociology program. So why is the markup for engineering so small?

And law schools and med schools often reject people with low GPAs regardless of their background. An A student from the worst school you can name has a better chance of getting into any top med school than a kid with a 2.5 and perfect MCATs from MIT or Caltech. This leads to a culture where people move out of meaningful majors just to get straight A's and schools are penalized for upholding high standards.

Does this mean that the market only values a degree, or has regulation, political correctness, and affirmative action made it so that credentialism of the most undiscriminating sort is necessary to avoid even the hint of lawsuits?

resigned writes:

I think nn is mixing a few apples and oranges. For a company hiring for an engineering job, competency should be the first question--so, the difference between the difficulty of the engineering and humanities classes becomes less relevant. The difficulty in this cases comes in what I argued earlier, in discriminating which student to hire based on grades. Let's suppose I have an A student from Stanford with rampant grade inflation and a B student from VPI where the grade inflation is less (assume this is the case for now). The company may mistakenly hire the Stanford student assuming that they're getting the stronger employee from the stronger school, even if they're not. However, suppose they hire a number of ok Stanford employees over the years. Hopefully, they'll realize that they're not getting what they paid for and start hiring students from other schools. If Stanford realizes that this the case, then the grade inflation incentive will have to fight the incentive for placing graduates. However, in the interim, I agree that this is a problem for a number of students from VPI. I think as this problem becomes more widespread, perhaps companies will start having their own exams to test for competencies.

Now, there is the case of professional degrees where the undergraduate major is not directly correlated to the degree being sought (medicine, law, mba). Here, there are problems. I agree with NN that the national exam should take precedence, but how well does it correlate with performance in medical school? I would hope (perhaps naively) that med schools would check to see whether or not gpa, or mcat results correlate better with success in med. school.

The problem in all of these cases is that there is a large field of applicants, so there needs to be a metric for culling the field before engaging in detailed evaluations.

dearieme writes:

I suspect that the rot set in with the generation that began to say "critique" when it meant "criticise" and "parse" when it meant "construe".

rakehell writes:

"The difficulty of all of this is that it makes it very hard for a company or school to discriminate in hiring based on the grades of applicants."

What's happened is that to get a good job you need to have top grades from a top school.

Aidan Maconachy writes:

Rakeshell - this is true. A lot of employers no longer trust grades that come from from the many dubious educational institutions out there.

Aidan Maconachy writes:

I think nn makes some good points with respect to the difference in grading between the Sciences and the Humanities.

Provided the institution in question has a credible curriculum and a reasonable reputation, any corporation or grad school is likely to be a lot more confident that a B+ in math or science actually reflects that individual's ability. Grading in the Arts is much more subjective and a student's answers, although broadly correct, may be subject to the personal biases of the examiner.

For example, I recall writing an essay on Shakespeare's Hamlet at university and being penalized because my interpretation of character wasn't in line with my prof's feminist views. If I had submitted the same essay to a prof with a different perspective on the play, I might have picked up an additional 10%. This type of subjective grading is fairly typical in a number of Art areas.

The problem of deliberate mark inflation is even more problematic. Here in Ontario, schools have been complaining that they are getting undergraduates with top high school grades that in some cases are very poor indicators of a given student's actual capabilities. The problem of mark inflation has created many headaches for university departments who are dealing in some instances with students who have difficulty with basic grammar.

When I first moved to Ontario from the UK, I taught in private schools for a period, and I was frankly appalled by the poor standards. Since these were paying students, marks were often deliberately inflated in order to make the school look good essentially.

I think part of the problem is that our culture is so media driven, kids put a priority on functional skills such as mastering a computer game or the nuances of internet surfing, rather than pay attention to basic literacy.

My wife teaches English and Drama, and she has noticed that for many kids "the book" has become sort of passe. Outside of the classroom, few actually spend the time reading books for personal edification.

So these problems are quite complex, and I do understand why an employer would tend to favor an applicant from a top ranked school. Maybe there is a case for schools "guaranteeing" marks, in much the way a company stands behind a product. Something needs to happen because there is definitely a loss of confidence these days when it comes to believing that grades are reliable indicators of achievement.

Aidan Maconachy writes:

Someone in this thread made a connection between immigration and literacy rates. This is an interesting point and I was wondering if anyone has any stats on this or knows of a site that has research data on this subject.

Aidan Maconachy writes:

A few people have had difficulty linking to my blog. If the url doesn't link try a search for - Aidan Maconachy Main Blog

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