| August 2, 2010

Oklahoma's Literacy Levels 'Abysmal'

As you can see in the preceding pages, the level of civic literacy in this state is a real problem. But that shouldn’t be terribly surprising when you consider where we are with respect to literacy itself—the ability to read.

Last year I had the opportunity to contribute an article to a publication, “Getting Ready for Work: Education Systems and Future Workforce,” produced by The Oklahoma Academy, a venerable think tank now in its 43rd year. Also included in the publication was an important article on literacy written by Martha Gregory, a researcher for the Tulsa City-County Library System.

Ms. Gregory, after reviewing the most recent literacy data produced by the federal government, concluded that “the record for the nation is abysmal and we [Oklahoma] are for the most part in step.”

Twelve percent of Oklahoma’s adult population is “below basic” in prose literacy; Ms. Gregory equates this to a reading level of 3rd grade and below.

Another 31 percent of Oklahoma’s adult population reads at the “basic” level; this is between the 4th grade and 7th grade reading levels.

In other words, Ms. Gregory says, 43 percent of Oklahoma’s adult population reads at a 7th grade level or lower.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Once you do, then various news reports that pop up from time to time start to make sense. For example, in a July 17 story in The Oklahoman Vallery Brown reported that since January, prospective law-enforcement officers in Oklahoma have been required to pass a test which measures basic reading, writing, comprehension, and math skills.

The test is written at a 6th grade level.

Even so, “before the requirement went into effect this year,” Brown reported, “many police chiefs and sheriffs had expressed concerns it would deplete their pool of potential applicants, making staffing difficult in places where finding recruits already was hard.

“Stillwater Police Chief Norman McNickle has administered a similar test to applicants at his force for about 10 years. He said the results often are surprising. ‘We’ve had to turn away incumbent officers from other agencies because they couldn’t pass the test,’ McNickle said.”

I urge you to take a look for yourself at the literacy report cited by Ms. Gregory. Entitled “Highlights from the 2003 Oklahoma State Assessment of Adult Literacy,” it was prepared with funding from Oklahoma taxpayers and is available on the website of the state Department of Education.

Among other things, the report looks at literacy in Oklahoma by levels of educational attainment. For example, more than half of Oklahoma’s high-school graduates read at the basic level or below, i.e., at a 7th grade level or lower.

Arguably even more appalling is the revelation that 13 percent of Oklahoma’s college graduates read at that 7th grade level or lower.

I’m reminded of Joseph Sobran’s devastating quip, “In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching remedial English in college.”

Regrettably, things are not getting better in Oklahoma, according to a new study published by The Foundation for Educational Choice, OCPA, and the Oklahoma Business & Education Coalition.

The study, “Reform with Results: What Oklahoma Can Learn from Florida’s K-12 Education Revolution,” points out that “the reading scores of Oklahoma students over the past decade not only have failed to improve, they actually have declined. This drop came in spite of a 42.8 percent increase in the inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending in Oklahoma between 1998 and 2007.”

“Oklahomans have suffered from a malady all too common in the United States: paying more for K-12 schools without receiving the benefit of improved student learning. The state desperately needs far-reaching changes to its education system.”

Yes it does. Or we will continue to be plagued by illiteracy, civic and otherwise.

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