The Reading Crisis In America

Media reports in this country often focus on the high illiteracy rates that plague our nation’s schools. Parents, educators, and politicians have been lead to believe that many of our children are failing to learn to read. Yet, several questions remain. Just how serious is the problem? And have objective studies been done to assess the nations literacy rate accurately?

Until recent years, the testing that had been done to examine this countrys illiteracy rate had been nonexistent or poorly done. Conventional wisdom told us that many children were not learning to read, yet that was often purely speculative, based on tests given by classroom teachers, or declared after the review of large group standardized tests. For example, the California Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) allows educators to compare individual children to a large sample group. Ultimately, however, this only reveals where a child’s skills rank compared to the whole group. If the whole group is reading at low levels, then an average reader is actually a poor reader!

The National Assessment Governing Board, working with the National Center for Education Statistics, has tested students nationwide in a study that cleared up many of the methodological and sampling problems of past research (NAEP, 2000). Students were rated at four levels: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. In a 1998 national study, 38 percent of fourth grade students were rated Below Basic. In other words, 38 percent of those tested were functionally illiterate! In the same study, only 31 percent of students were at or above the acceptable level of Proficient. As you consider these findings, keep in mind that 11 percent of students were untestable due to learning disabilities or language barriers. In other words, if the untested poor readers are added in, approximately 44% of fourth grade students are illiterate and only 25% are at an acceptable level!

These sobering results also held true in a 1992 study of 26,000 adults by the same group (NAEP 1992). Adults were expected to read test materials that were designed to be reflective of reading they would regularly need to do in everyday life. Level 1 required a minimal level of competence. Overall, 22 percent of the adults tested were at Level 1 or lower. For the whole population, that translates to roughly forty-two million American adults who are functionally illiterate! Forty-eight percent of the adults were at Level 2 or lower, barely literate. Only three percent of all adults reached the highest level, Level 5. Indeed there is a reading crisis in America!

To a large degree, this crisis can be attributed to the fact that the most prevalent reading programs in use in this nations schools are insufficient. As a result, not only do many children in elementary school fail to learn to read, but also a majority of these children never catch up and actually get worse over time (Fletcher and Satz 1980). Likewise, the vast majority of children in special education programs make no progress whatsoever (Truch 1994).