New reports show that SAT reading scores are the lowest they've been in 40 years. Down one point from last year and 34 points since 1972, 2012's graduating seniors' average reading or "verbal" score is 496. Additionally unsettling are their writing scores, which have dropped to 488, a decrease of nine points since the College Board (the organization that administers the test) started testing for it in 2006.
My friends in education explained there are several reasons for these numbers.
In part they reflect the ever-widening pool of students who take the SAT. First administered in 1926, there were only a few thousand. Last year more than 1.66 million graduating seniors took the test, the highest number in history. Nearly half were minorities and about a quarter reported that English was not exclusively their first language.
Additionally, not enough parents are involved in their children's education. According to my friend Stacy, a high school English teacher in New Jersey, encouraging a child to keep a calendar, a journal, or a schedule keeps kids focused on what their job is: to do well in school. "It gives them a goal," she said.
The way kids are reading and writing are also affecting scores. Humans store content and location in different ways in the brain. Studies show that increasing dependence on digital information sources means that humans are having difficulty remembering "location," since it has no physical presence.
"Getting lost in a series of menus in an Internet search is a good example of this," said another friend Amanda, an elementary school history teacher in Rochester. "Compare that to contents contained in a book, which are physically accessible. Chances are, kids will remember what's in the book."
The above is true. But I think it boils down to this: future generations are illiterate because kids don't write and read enough. Looking broadly across the U.S., this will require a major change.
When my parents went to grade school, they spent hours on language workbooks, learning the parts of speech and proper usage. This was separate from reading period, which focused more on comprehension and decoding. Today, public school kids are lucky if they get an hour a day of either. The high-stakes tests that drive curricula in most states require very little writing and reading, and that in turn has driven out both in many classrooms.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported earlier this month that in 2011, 40 to 41 percent of public school students at grades 8 and 12 were given less than a page of writing homework in a typical week. In fact, some 14 percent of 12th-graders reported being asked to do no writing for homework at all. Instead, they are asked to fill in blanks, copy notes, or choose among multiple-choice responses.
The majority of states are on their way to adopting the Common Core Standards, a set of reforms that will dramatically change the way many schools teach writing, and subsequently reading, across all subject areas.
For the first time, elementary students will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, they'll be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.
This is great. But teaching expository text and dialogue is just the first step.
There also needs to be a strong support from the school administration - writing and reading has to be high on a school-wide agenda. Similarly, teachers should be involved in initiatives that go beyond their own classrooms, such as the National Writing Project or collaborating with local universities.
In whatever way they can, teachers need to be part of a professional learning community, sharing ideas, and changing curriculum and instruction in response to what they're learning. Pretty much anything to get these scores up, because an uneducated populace is bad news for the future.