Poor reading skills hamper Tennessee economy

Editorial, Kingsport Times-News January 3, 2006

If you can read this, count yourself among a minority of Tennesseans. A new study shows slightly more than half of Tennessee adults - 53 percent - struggle with even the most basic reading skills. The study, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), shows the nation at large is only marginally better off, with 50 percent of those surveyed failing to meet basic levels of literacy.

Sadly, the NCES study of more than 19,000 American adults is no aberration. Indeed, incredible as it might seem, a National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) test released earlier this month concludes that literacy levels have even declined significantly among college graduates over the past decade.

In the early 1990s, when the adult literacy test was last administered, NAAL reported that just 40 percent of the nation's college graduates scored at the proficient level in English, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. Alarmingly, a decade later, an even smaller 31 percent of the graduates demonstrated those high-level skills.

The college graduates who failed to demonstrate proficiency in the latest test included 53 percent who scored at the intermediate level and 14 percent who scored at the basic level, meaning they could read and understand short, commonplace prose texts. Incredibly, three percent of college graduates - some 800,000 young adults with a bachelor's degree or its equivalent - could only manage what NAAL designates as "below basic'' literacy, meaning that they could not perform more than the simplest skills, like locating easily identifiable information in a short piece of prose.

While the United States may be the world's only economic and military superpower, the nation's literacy rate ranks only in the top 15 in the industrialized world. Some 44 million Americans cannot do simple mathematics or read a newspaper, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In Tennessee, a survey conducted in 2003 by the Comptroller's Office of Research found that 53 percent of all adults in the state occupy the bottom two rungs of a five-level literacy ladder.

A level 1 rating means an individual is able to read, but not well enough to complete a job application, understand a food label or read a simple story to a child. Those at level 2 are marginally better readers but lack crucial, higher-level reading and problem-solving skills.

Those findings describe a threat of considerable dimensions to the state's economic health. Such abysmally low reading skills also demonstrate the widespread disinterest, even neglect, by too many of the state's political leaders. It certainly doesn't help that Tennessee has traditionally allocated less money to adult literacy programs than most Southeastern states.

It's obvious that one of the chief reasons new job creation continues to lag in Tennessee is directly traceable to the low skill sets of far too many in Tennessee's workforce. Conversely, the best way for an individual to obtain and keep a good-paying job is to improve his or her educational skills, so that companies won't be tempted to outsource to better-trained workers overseas. The ability to read well is a critically important step in changing that dynamic.

Those who struggle to read cannot learn other, critical math and science skills, or engage in the abstract reasoning that they will need to survive in a highly competitive job market.

At a time when the printed word has never been more ubiquitous, nor the choices available to potential readers more interesting and varied, it is ironic, embarrassing and shameful to see literacy levels stagnate, much less decline. If our culture and economy are to survive intact, reading well will have to regain its place of prominence. Otherwise, the next page we turn in our collective future will be blank

Quoting a Sullivan County official, he confirmed again what most in power here will not address: "I was in no way casting dispersions on the level of education at ETSU. When I said that "we have ETSU students flipping burgers," I was pointing out that we do not have the level of jobs in this area to sustain the number of graduates from our local colleges. Therefore, they are forced to either leave the area or take what jobs are available to them, which in most cases are in the service area," The trouble is there are no decent jobs even in trades as the Tarnoff report revealed. See:

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