If you’re shocked by the latest scholastic reading scores, then you haven’t been paying attention. They’re pretty awful. But they’re part of a trend that goes back roughly half a century.
Across Maryland, about two-thirds of fourth graders and eighth graders are reading below grade level. That mirrors the test results in dozens of other states, but not Baltimore’s. The city’s are far worse.
The numbers come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It’s part of what’s known as the Nation’s Report Card.
It’s also the nation’s disgrace.
Children who can’t read decently are condemned to adulthoods where they can’t make a decent living. When increasing numbers of people can’t read decently, the entire culture gets dumbed down to match the marketplace. Yet, as the world gets more complex, the test scores keep getting worse.
In Maryland, the reading scores among fourth graders dropped five points in the past year – down to just 35 percent “proficiency.” And they dropped two points among eighth graders – down to just 36 percent.
In the city, though, the numbers read like suicide notes for the future.
Just 13 percent of Baltimore fourth graders and 15 percent of eighth graders made the grade in reading. Nationwide, the city ranks ahead of Milwaukee and Detroit. And no one else.
We can blame the usual suspects for this. The city has the most poverty, the most undernourished children, the most children from one-parent families, the toughest outside distractions. You hear such rationalizing through the years, and it’s all true enough – and yet it still results in failure.
Not just the kids’ failure – but the grownups failing to get through to the kids, whether it’s administrators going through the motions, or teachers who are exhausted and overmatched, or parents who aren’t doing their part.
All of this sets us up this coming winter for an old and wearisome legislative debate over money. We need more funding for schools, educators will insist. We need money for computers, for modern textbooks, for smaller class sizes.
All of this is true enough.
But how do you make that argument against those in government faced with balancing budgets who say that we’ve been sinking vast amounts already, yet the results continue to disappoint?
These are the arguments that are held every year, and we’re about to hear them again as educators prepare for major battles in Annapolis over school funding.
And then we’ll brace for the inevitable student disappointments, and another generation of kids will be sentenced to adulthood disappointments.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.