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Producing a nation of illiterates

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By BEN FELLER, AP Education Writer

Thu Jan 19, 6:23 PM ET

 

 

 

Nearing a diploma, most college students cannot handle many complex but common tasks, from understanding credit card offers to comparing the cost per ounce of food.

 

Those are the sobering findings of a study of literacy on college campuses, the first to target the skills of students as they approach the start of their careers.

 

More than 50 percent of students at four-year schools and more than 75 percent at two-year colleges lacked the skills to perform complex literacy tasks.

 

That means they could not interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school.

 

The results cut across three types of literacy: analyzing news stories and other prose, understanding documents and having math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips.

 

"It is kind of disturbing that a lot of folks are graduating with a degree and they're not going to be able to do those things," said Stephane Baldi, the study's director at the American Institutes for Research, a behavioral and social science research organization.

 

Most students at community colleges and four-year schools showed intermediate skills, meaning they could perform moderately challenging tasks. Examples include identifying a location on a map, calculating the cost of ordering office supplies or consulting a reference guide to figure out which foods contain a particular vitamin.

 

There was brighter news.

 

Overall, the average literacy of college students is significantly higher than that of adults across the nation. Study leaders said that was encouraging but not surprising, given that the spectrum of adults includes those with much less education.

 

Also, compared with all adults with similar levels of education, college students had superior skills in searching and using information from texts and documents.

 

"But do they do well enough for a highly educated population? For a knowledge-based economy? The answer is no," said Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an independent and nonpartisan group.

 

"This sends a message that we should be monitoring this as a nation, and we don't do it," Finney said. "States have no idea about the knowledge and skills of their college graduates."

 

The survey examined college and university students nearing the end of their degree programs. The students did the worst on matters involving math, according to the study.

 

Almost 20 percent of students pursuing four-year degrees had only basic quantitative skills. For example, the students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the service station. About 30 percent of two-year students had only basic math skills.

 

Baldi and Finney said the survey should be used as a tool. They hope state leaders, educators and university trustees will examine the rigor of courses required of all students.

 

The survey showed a strong relationship between analytic coursework and literacy. Students in two-year and four-year schools scored higher when they took classes that challenged them to apply theories to practical problems or weigh competing arguments.

 

The college survey used the same test as the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the government's examination of English literacy among adults. The results of that study were released in December, showing about one in 20 adults is not literate in English.

 

On campus, the tests were given in 2003 to a representative sample of 1,827 students at public and private schools. The Pew Charitable Trusts funded the survey.

 

It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

 

 

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I noted this which I think is a key part of the article:

 

"The survey showed a strong relationship between analytic coursework and literacy. Students in two-year and four-year schools scored higher when they took classes that challenged them to apply theories to practical problems or weigh competing arguments."

 

I fear that the continuing emphasis on using testing to determine success rates of schools will just make matters worse - more and more colleges are complaining that students aren't arriving with basic analytical knowledge or with basic skills. Our society became so obsessed with matching and then surpassing testing levels of other countries that we lost sight of where our true strengths lied.

 

At one time, our greatest strengths were critical thinking, analysis, creativity and problem solving. All of these skills used to play a major role in the education of our young people. Yes, there were countries that scored higher on standardized tests, but they also spent more time on rote learning and less time on the more abstract skills. Those countries weren't as innovative as ours. Foreign soldiers were always amazed at American's ability to jury-rig some device to fix a motor vehicle or gun when no spare parts were around. They could tell you the scientific principles behind a compression engine, we could figure out a way to fix it when it looked beyond repair.

 

Now, we spend more time on rote learning and teaching to the tests that must be passed and less time on the abstract skills. Because of this we are losing our edge, and our students no longer have the same skills of just a generation ago. I've always believed its far less important to memorize the multiplication table than it is to understand how one gets to the figure in the first place. Its more important to learn where to find information than to memorize it in the first place.

 

Calico

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Albert Einstein is quoted as once having said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge".

 

The current trend towards using standardized tests as the main arbitor for advancement as well as federal funding is forcing schools to teach their students in a certain way, the way that allows them to get the highest scores on the tests. This is hardly conducive to teaching our children to actually "think". I've always thought that schools mainly exist to teach you how to learn. What they actually present in the way of knowledge is useful, or not, depending on your circumstances, but the training in knowing how to learn remains for a lifetime. Or, you learn how to take a particular kind of test and end up with a number of facts, but no real way of using them or extending beyond them.

 

Once you know how to learn, your imagination can open up and explore endless possibilities. We used to know how to send men to the moon. Anybody think we could do that today if we wanted to? Our space program isn't run by men of vision anymore; it's run by accountants. Somebody apparently thought that that was a good idea, but the end result is that we have a hard time getting anything off the ground. I do see some hope, tho. There are small pockets of imaginative people here and there in the country. Private groups building their own manned space program. College students building cars that can navigate long distances over rugged terrain, all on their own. Who knows, there might even be a couple of government programs encouraging innovation that haven't been killed off yet.

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