September 8, 2008

88% of DC 8th Graders Can't Read

Or so says the headline on CNN. Which is bullshit. Watch the video, and you’ll see that the Chancellor of the DC public school system says that only 12% of students in the 8th grade read at a standardized 8th grade level.

Now, that’s not to say that an eighth grader who can’t read at an eighth grade level is a good thing or even an excusable one. It doesn’t mean that nearly nine in ten graduates of DC schools are functionally illiterate. The CNN headline writer apparently can’t listen at an eighth grade level. But I’m sure they got lots of eyeballs with that deceptive headline.

This got me thinking. What exactly does “read at an eighth grade level” mean, anyway? The National Association of Educational Professionals appears to be the entity that defines these sorts of things. Here’s what they have to say about eighth grade reading:
Eighth-grade students performing at the Basic level should demonstrate a literal understanding of what they read and be able to make some interpretations. When reading text appropriate to eighth grade, they should be able to identify specific aspects of the text that reflect overall meaning, extend the ideas in the text by making simple inferences, recognize and relate interpretations and connections among ideas in the text to personal experience, and draw conclusions based on the text.
I’ve skipped the definitions of “proficient” and “advanced” reading levels. Now, this is something of an abstract definition, which is difficult to understand on its own. So I found an eighth grade reading comprehension test that you can take online. (Link now fixed.) It took me about half an hour and I got 46 out of 48. I also learned about an interesting figure from African-American history that I had not known of before. But taking the test gives a better idea of what exactly our students are being asked to do. It’s not hugely advanced but it’s also not particularly difficult. I think it’s appropriate for eighth graders to read and understand stuff like that. And the fact that only 12 in 100 students in D.C. can do that is indeed unacceptable.

But it doesn't mean that all those other kids can't read at all. It just means they would struggle with the test I linked to.

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