Nationwide, expectations for student literacy are changing. National standards are different from state standards, and each state’s expectations are different from the one next to it. Unfortunately, not only are the standards inconsistent, but they seem to be getting lower.
Some of these changes can be traced back to the COVID-19 pandemic, and while some make sense, many aren’t necessarily helpful. For example, some states are removing tests that must be passed in order to graduate high school, and are relying only on the student’s grades to determine if they are ready for graduation. Some schools no longer see the value in teaching spelling and vocabulary words.
This is bad enough for students who are graduating entirely unprepared, but the same thing is being done for aspiring teachers. Requirements are also being removed for admissions to teaching programs. Since there has been a decline in applications to teaching programs, some requirements have been removed to allow for more of the people who do apply to be accepted.
WHY ARE STANDARDS BEING LOWERED?
Requirements for teachers are being changed because we are experiencing a teacher shortage. Heather Peske, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality states, “Endorsing an option that asks less of teachers in terms of their content knowledge [means] you shift the burden onto students.”
Teacher standards have been changed because of shortages. We have no shortage of students, so why are those standards being changed too?
Learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic means that students weren’t coming out of school with as much knowledge as they should have. Having so many students who were behind meant that it looked like lots of students would need to repeat a grade. Instead of having these students held back, the standards were simply changed, so kids were able to continue to the next grade without making up any of the learning they had missed.
Another factor is a concept called grade inflation. This happens when a teacher is pressured either by administration or by a student’s family to raise a student’s grades. If students have high grades, but very little knowledge, then the definition of a proficient student also has to be changed to match.
In the recent past, the emphasis on spelling has been removed from public schools in favor of working on grammar and overall writing skill. Unfortunately, spelling is the cornerstone of both reading and writing skills, and this has been extremely damaging.
Encoding, or spelling knowledge, is another thing many Americans are lacking. When it comes to spelling, it is often skipped over in favor of preparation for standardized tests. The misconception that spelling is not important is damaging. Spelling knowledge impacts the pronunciation of words, the ability to read new words, and how likely someone is to understand a word they are reading for the first time. Reading proficiently just isn’t possible without a foundational knowledge of how to spell.
LONG TERM EFFECTS
Adult literacy rates in the US are affected by the way the school system handles literacy, grades, and reading standards. Less than half of adults are at a 6th grade or higher literacy level.
Proficiency is described in levels 1 through 4 and 5. Level 5, the highest level of proficiency, was combined with level 4 because not enough people were reaching it - only 2%. Only 12% of Americans are considered at the highest level of proficiency, even after Level 5 has been dissolved. Now, with lower standards and fewer challenges, it can be expected that America’s literacy rate will continue to drop.
Literacy is a huge indicator for success. Literacy is correlated with income, employment, health, and economic growth. Automating jobs that previously could have been done by someone with minimal literacy skills now means that there are even fewer options.
The best way to combat this illiteracy epidemic is to prevent the problem early. Working with your kids while they are still young and in school is the best option, because young brains learn the fastest.