Is literacy declining?

As I explained in an earlier post, my review-essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and as an online supplement, I’m summarizing some of the data that I drew from, organizing the summaries by topic, and including links where I can. These are merely evidence in raw form and are probably a bit indigestible taken en masse. For analysis and discussion and hopefully a more pleasant read, please see the New Yorker article itself.

Yesterday: Are Americans spending less money on reading? Today: Is literacy declining?

Explanatory note: You’ll see, if you read through these summaries, that some students of literacy think demographic shifts such as immigration are crucial, and others think they’re largely irrelevant. I’m inclined to the latter opinion myself, but my goal in this list is to present the findings of others in a relatively neutral way.

  • A National Assessment of Educational Progress test of more than 21,000 twelfth graders in 2005 found that the average reading score was 286 on a 500-point scale, down from 292 in 1992. More distressing, the proportion of students at or above a proficient level in reading fell from 40 percent in 1992 to 35 percent in 2005, and the proportion reading at a basic level fell from 80 percent in 1992 to 73 percent in 2005. (At the basic level, corresponding to scores between 265 and 302, a student should be able to, say, extract information from a document and connect it to the outside world. At the proficient level, 302 to 346, a student should be able to “provide [an] example of difference between two editorials” or “specify language that depicts [a] character’s emotional state.” At the advanced level, 346 and above, a student should be able to “interpret [an] author’s belief and provide supporting examples” and “explain [the] symbolic significance of [a] setting.”) When reading scores were differentiated by context, it emerged that, between 1992 and 2005, scores had fallen 2 points in reading for information, 6 in reading to perform a task, and 12 in reading for literary experience, which involves “exploring themes, events, characters, settings, and the language of literary works.” Although the proportion of whites in the student population has declined since 1992, from 74 percent to 67 percent, and that of Hispanics has risen, from 7 percent to 14 percent, the demographic shifts cannot alone account for the fall in reading scores, because the separately tallied scores of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians all fell between 1992 and 2005. [W. Grigg, P. Donahue, and G. Dion, The Nation’s Report Card: 12th-Grade Reading and Mathematics 2005 (NCES 2007-468), U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007.]
  • National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests of more than 165,000 fourth graders and more than 159,000 eighth graders found that the average reading score of fourth graders rose moderately from 217 in 1992 to 219 in 2005, and then to 221 in 2007, and the score of eighth graders rose moderately from 260 in 1992 to 262 in 2005, and then to 263 in 2007. The proportion of proficient fourth graders rose from 29 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2005; proficiency among eighth graders had risen by exactly the same amount. Tallied separately, fourth-grade reading scores by whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asian/Pacific Islanders all increased—dramatically in some cases—and there were substantial gains by eighth-grade whites, blacks, and Hispanics. Among fourth graders, scores in reading for literary experience rose from 219 in 1992 to 222 in 2005, and reading for information rose from 214 to 216. Eighth graders improved in reading for literary experience from 259 to 261, in reading for information from 261 to 263, and in reading to perform a task from 261 to 262. [M. Perie, W. Grigg, and P. Donahue, The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2005 (NCES 2006-451), U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2005; J. Lee, W. Grigg, and P. Donahue, The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2007 (NCES 2007–496), National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.; and National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Education Progress “Data Explorer,” incorporating data from reading assessments conducted in 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2005]
  • The National Assessment of Education Progress also studies long-term trends in reading scores, using tests with an older and different methodology, not comparable with those above. In 2004, the assessment tested more than 11,000 students at each of the ages nine, thirteen, and seventeen. Seventeen-year-olds in 2004 scored 285, the same as they did in 1971. Thirteen-year-olds improved moderately, from 255 in 1971 to 259 in 2004. Nine-year-olds, however, improved dramatically, from 208 in 1971 to 219 in 2004, and most of the improvement occurred after a 1999 assessment. Just as dramatic was the decline in the black-white score gap among nine-year-olds—from 44 points in 1971, to 35 points in 1999, to just 26 points in 2004. When coupled with similar improvement in the white-Hispanic score gap among nine-year-olds, the results would at first glance seem to suggest that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has been effective, but test results from the regular NAEP “Nation’s Report Card” series (see the paragraph above) suggest that the bulk of the improvement seems to have taken place before 2002, when the NCLB was signed into law. It is nonetheless an intriguing jump, and one wonders what caused it. Looking over the numbers, the only historic parallel is a sharp decline in the white-black gap among seventeen-year-olds in the late 1980s—from 50 points in 1980 to just 20 points in 1988—an improvement that some scholars have attributed to governmental interventions in civil rights, including desegregation. [Marianne Perie and Rebecca Moran, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics (NCES 2005-464), U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2005. David Grissmer, Ann Flanagan, and Stephanie Williamson, “Why Did the Black-White Score Gap Narrow in the 1970s and 1980s?” The Black-White Test Score Gap, Brookings Institution, 1998.]
  • In a 2006 report, analysts at ACT, a test manufacturer, noted that only 51 percent of high school graduates who took their test in 2005 were “ready for college-level reading.” Tests administered by the company to eighth and tenth graders, however, showed about 62 percent of the students on track for college reading, suggesting that the slowdown is taking place in the later high school years. The authors note that although the No Child Left Behind Act requires reading standards for elementary school students, many states have none for older students. Questions involving complex texts single out college-ready students better than other kinds, the test-makers find, and so they speculate that high school students are not reading enough complex prose. [ACT, Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals about College Readiness in Reading, 2006.]
  • In 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy tested over 19,000 adults and found that average prose literacy had declined one point between 1992 and 2003, from 276 to 275 on a 500-point scale, and that document literacy was stable at a score of 271. The proportion of adults deemed proficient in prose and document reading—capable of “comparing viewpoints in two editorials” or “interpreting a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity”—declined from 15 percent in 1992 to 13 percent in 2003. Some of the changes may be due to demographic shifts, as groups with lower literacy rates have become more populous. Hispanic literacy decreased markedly—35 percent were at a below-basic level of prose literacy in 1992, and 44 percent were in 2003—and seem to have offset gains in literacy among blacks and Asian/Pacific Islanders. Whites maintained the highest literacy scores, but even among whites, proficiency in prose literacy decreased slightly, from 18 percent to 17 percent. Perplexingly, between 1992 and 2003 it became somewhat easier for a person with below-basic literacy to find employment. Only 53 percent of adults with below-basic prose literacy voted in the 2000 presidential election; 84 percent of proficient readers did. [Mark Kutner, Elizabeth Greenberg, and Justin Baer, A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century, NCES 2006-470, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 2006. Mark Kutner, Elizabeth Greenberg, Ying Jin, Bridget Boyle, Yung-Chen Hsu, and Eric Dunleavy, Literacy in Everyday Life: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, NCES 2007-480, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, April 2007.]
  • In a January 2007 report, analysts at the Educational Testing Service, the makers of the SAT and others diagnostic tests, predicted that “by 2030 the average levels of literacy and numeracy in the working-age population will have decreased by about 5 percent.” They based their prediction on estimates of demographic change, noting that “between 2000 and 2005, two-thirds of the nation’s civilian labor-force growth and 86 percent of its employment growth was generated by new immigrant arrivals,” and that these trends were likely to continue. In other words, there will be proportionally more Americans in 2030 from ethnicities that have historically had lower literacy rates. The authors note, however, that on a 2005 adult literacy assessment, U.S.-born Hispanics scored 50 points higher on a 500-point scale than foreign-born Hispanics. (Intriguingly, U.S.-born blacks scored 7 points worse than foreign-born blacks, and U.S.-born Asians scored higher than any other ethnic group, wherever they were born.) When compared to literacy rates in other developed countries, U.S. scores are average. [Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Kentaro Yamamoto, and Andrew Sum, America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future, Educational Testing Service, January 2007.]

  • Interviews and assessments in 2003 of 3,420 adults in the United States—as part of the international Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey that assessed similar samples in Bermuda, Canada, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, and the Mexican state of Nueva Leon—found that the average American prose literacy score had dropped from 273.7 on a test in 1993 to 268.6 in 2003. The decline was statistically significant and somewhat unusual; of the six regions where comparison was possible, only Italian-speaking Switzerland showed a similar decline. Looking at the American decline more closely, the analysts observed that most of it came from America’s most proficient readers, writing that “there is a small improvement among low-skilled adults only, and a comparatively high decline among high-skilled adults.” In 2003, America outperformed Italy and Nuevo Leon on prose and document literacy, but came in behind Norway, Bermuda, Switzerland, and Canada. [Statistics Canada and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Learning a Living: First Results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, 2005]

Next: Does television impair academic performance and cognitive development?

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

One thought on “Is literacy declining?”

  1. When asked in a Paris Review interview, in 1972, about the future of the written word, Jerzy Kosinski described reading novels as an unusual, masochistic act. Literature, in Kosinski's view, lacked television's ability to soothe. He believed television was the enemy of books. But then the lovely E. L. Mayo poem, The Coming of the Toads, also about TV, suggests a political outcome, a Marxist marvel: "The very rich are not like you and me," / Sad Fitzgerald said, who could not guess / The coming of the vast and gleaming toads / With precious heads which, at a button's press, / The flick of a switch, hop only to convey / To you and me and even the very rich / The perfect jewel of equality… Kosinski's code name for Being There, he tells us in the interview, was Blank Page. With the internet, Mayo's equality includes read/write capabilities and potentials. In class, the students are busily texting one another on their cell phones in a sub-text as unobtrusive as Kosinki's prose.

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