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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. 

And what do we see in twelfth-grade scores over time? Disappointment. The most recent administration of the twelfth-grade version of NAEP was in 2015. Then, 37 percent of test-takers reached proficient or advanced—a drop from the early ’90s when it was 40 percent. The average score went from 292 in 1992 to 287 in 2015.

In recent years, America’s high school graduates haven’t done much better on the SAT and ACT. Only about 45 percent of ACT test-takers between 2014 and 2018 met college readiness benchmarks in reading. And just a few weeks ago we received the 2019 ACT scores, which the Washington Post reported on with the following headline: “Class of 2019 ACT scores show record low college-readiness rates in English, math.” The SAT gives a longer historical picture—and a steeper decline. In 1972, the average score for critical reading was 530. In 2016, it fell to 494. 

Anybody who is surprised by these results hasn’t been paying attention. For the last twelve years, social media, handheld devices, and video games have swept into teens’ lives like a tidal wave. A 2016 survey found that 11 percent of kids had a social media account before turning ten years old. Another 39 percent obtained one between ages ten and 12. We may be sure that rates have risen since then.

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. Don’t believe those stories about overscheduled, super-busy kids, either. The Time Use Survey counts 15–24-year-olds enjoying 5.4 hours of leisure/sports time each day.

And don’t trust technophiles who claim that kids’ screen time includes lots and lots of reading. If that were the case, we wouldn’t find such dismal test scores in the iPhone era. As more evidence gathers, too, of Silicon Valley designing products to encourage addiction (the very opposite of critical reading), those rosy predictions of hyper-informed, worldly Digital Natives that we heard so often in the ’00s come off as the self-serving blather that they are.

There is a silver lining to this reading collapse, however. When I receive emails from youths who ask me how to avoid becoming one of The Dumbest Generation, I tell them they have already taken the first step: They care. I add advice on reading: Take a print newspaper and scan it each morning; keep a fun book by your bed and spend 20 minutes with it each night before going to sleep. Read, read, read, I tell them, and not on a screen. You will become a more interesting person with more knowledge and a better vocabulary and a deeper understanding of human motives.   

What’s more, you will profit by comparison to your peers. “Your college teachers will love you,” I say, “and so will your bosses.” An 18-year-old on the bus reading a print copy of Great Expectations or the Wall Street Journal or First Things instead of squinting at a tiny screen is an impressive sight. The screen is a demonic instrument; print is the antidote. It is time for parents and teachers, priests and coaches to become truly countercultural voices. Take away the phone until the young people finish their homework, do their chores, shoot some hoops, clean their plates, and read their books.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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