America the Illiterate

CNN recently reported a rather sensationalistic figure: 88 percent of 8th graders in the District of Columbia cannot read. Although this statistic is a bit off the mark, itâÄôs difficult to say whether the truth of the matter is more comforting or depressing. Literacy, as a concept, has no real objective measure. The CIA World Factbook says the United States is 99 percent literate, although its methodology makes no distinction between a linguistics professor and someone who can only recognize a few hundred words. The statement on CNN was evidently based on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report (known colloquially as âÄúThe NationâÄôs Report CardâÄù) where the data reflected D.C. 8th graders who read below a âÄúproficientâÄù rating. But what does all this mean? The report card used four levels of comprehension to evaluate students: advanced, proficient, basic and below basic. The latter two of these were added together to come up with the 88 percent data. In Washington, the NAEP report showed 36 percent were reading at a âÄúbasicâÄù level. While better off than the 52 percent in the âÄúbelow basicâÄù category, even a âÄúbasicâÄù reading level is painfully insufficient. As adults, skills for the âÄúbasicâÄù reading level include reading TV Guide, but not using a map. It includes comparing ticket prices, but being unable to compare competing editorial viewpoints. A 2003 study done by the National Association for Educational Statistics showed that 55 percent of American adults are at or below this meager level of comprehension. The consequences of this situation are staggering; 75 percent of people on welfare and 85 percent of unwed mothers are functionally illiterate, a term which also includes one in five residents of Minneapolis. And while politicians froth over regulations that every immigrant be required to read, write and speak English, no such expectation is demanded of an educational system that would serve to eliminate the conditions of poverty that gives rise to the much-reviled âÄúwelfare state.âÄù Of course, it may not be surprising that politicians continue to ignore education. If the population was better-educated, who would be left to vote for them?