For adolescents, reading is a negligible activity. They reach for the phone before picking up a book, magazine, or newspaper. According to the American Time Use Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15–24-year-olds chalk up only six minutes of “Reading for personal interest” each day.
Here is how bad reading in America has become.
According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results, the average reading score of fourth- graders dropped one point from 2017, while eighth-graders fell three points from 2017. NAEP also calculates four “achievement levels”—Advanced, Proficient, Basic, and Below Basic. In 2019, only 35 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders scored Proficient or Advanced.
NAEP defines “proficiency” as “solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter.” For reading specifically, “proficiency” means being able to “integrate and interpret texts,” and to “draw conclusions and make evaluations.” That’s the fourth-grade version. In eighth grade, proficiency means being able “to provide relevant information and summarize main ideas and themes.” Students should be able to “make and support inferences about a text, connect parts of a text, and analyze text features.”
The 2019 results are particularly distressing because fourth- and eighth-graders had been making slow but steady progress since the early ’90s. The current results reverse that trend. They put the last large-scale reform of education standards, Common Core (which by 2013 had been adopted by 45 states), under suspicion because Common Core emphasized critical reading in the English Language Arts. (Disclosure: I helped draft some standards in the literature strand at the high school level in the Common Core project.) The fact that scores have fallen off, the largest drop occurring among the least talented readers (eighth-grade students in the 10th percentile dropped a full six points from 2017), is a sign of one more failure of yet one more large-scale reform advertised as a long-needed improvement in public education (and private education, too, given that Catholic dioceses around the country were nearly as eager to adopt Common Core as the states were).
In truth, however, we never should have been impressed with the small but consistent gains in reading scores in fourth- and eighth-graders since the ’90s. We have to take into account the twelfth-grade version of NAEP, administered about every four years. What happens in the early grades doesn’t matter one bit if those developments aren’t sustained until the end of high school. If fourth-graders jump five points from one administration of the test to the next, but eight years later sink back into a previous cohort’s unimpressive achievements, the earlier scores count for nothing.