Are Chicago 8th Graders Really Less Literate Than Slaves?

by Christopher Paslay

Writer Greg Lewis suggests Chicago 8th graders have reading levels far lower than former American slaves.

According to Greg Lewis, Chicago 8th graders read worse than American slaves.

Who is Greg LewisThe New York Times called him “the most ass-kickin’ writer to come along in a decade.”  Lewis, Ph.D., is also the author of The Politics of Anger and is a regular contributor to the conservative news website American Thinker.  (For the record, I’ve written three articles for American Thinker in the last five months.  Click here to read them).

On September 12th, Lewis published “The Results of Radicalism in Chicago’s Education System” on American Thinker.  I’m not sure if Lewis is attempting to be sensational to gain readership or if he truly believes his own hot air, but I can tell you one thing: he has little understanding of what constitutes literacy and even less of a grasp of standardized test scores.

The idea that Chicago students are less literate than slaves is both offensive and ludicrous.  Lewis suggests that Outcome Based Education, an instructional philosophy adopted by many large urban school districts including Chicago, is producing reading levels in students that are far worse than those of former American slaves.  Although OBE does promote a suffocating brand of educational socialism that is harming education as a whole, especially America’s high achievers, Lewis’s claim that it is producing sub-slavery reading levels is still a bit of a stretch.  Lewis turns to the 2011 NAEP scores of Chicago’s 8th graders to make his point.  According to CSN News:

Nationally, public school 8th graders scored an average of 264 on the NAEP reading test. Statewide in Illinois, the 8th graders did a little better, scoring an average of 266. But in the Chicago Public Schools, 8th graders scored an average of only 253 in reading. That was lower even than the nationwide average of 255 among 8th graders in “large city” public schools.

With these NAEP test results, only 19 percent of Chicago public school 8th graders rated proficient in reading while another 2 percent rated advanced—for a total of 21 percent who rated proficient or better.

The scores of the NAEP allowed Lewis to conclude the following:

One of the headlines accompanying the current Chicago teacher walkout has focused on Chicago students’ inability to read at their grade level.  Chicago’s school system has brought the level of reading proficiency among its 8th-graders down to 21 percent.  There’s only one parallel to the OBE results in Chicago: slavery. . . .

In colonial Boston, for instance, the literacy rate [for slaves] was nearly 100 percent.  Virtually everyone knew how to read, and anyone who didn’t could easily find someone to teach him.  Girls, boys, women, men…everybody could read.  So easy is it to learn to read that it was necessary to forbid teaching slaves.  You can sit down with a book and someone who knows how to read, and that person, even if he or she is not a licensed teacher — or, as is more appropriate today, especially if he or she is not a licensed teacher — can very likely teach you to read.

Ph.D. or no Ph.D., Greg Lewis is a first rate ignoramus.  Scoring proficient on the NAEP reading test does not correlate with being literate, nor does it correlate to being on grade level.  Noted education scholar Diane Ravitch debunked this myth when she reviewed Davis Guggenheim’s propagandistic documentary “Waiting For Superman” in the New York Review of Books 

NAEP doesn’t report grade levels. It reports achievement levels, and these do not correspond to grade levels. Nor does [Guggenheim] understand the NAEP achievement levels or just how demanding NAEP’s “proficiency” level really is. To score below “proficient” on NAEP does NOT mean “below grade level.”

NAEP has four achievement levels.

The top level is called “advanced,” which represents the very highest level of student performance. Students who are “advanced” probably are at an A+; if they were taking an SAT, they would likely score somewhere akin to 750-800. These are the students who are likely to qualify for admission to our most selective universities.

Then comes “proficient,” which represents solid academic performance, equivalent to an A or a very strong B. Guggenheim assumes that any student who is below “proficient” cannot read at “grade level.” He is wrong.

The third level is “basic.” These are students who have achieved partial mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to be proficient. This would be equivalent, I believe, to a grade of C. Many (if not most) states use NAEP’s “basic” as their own definition of “proficient.” This is because they know that it is unrealistic to expect all students to be “A” students.

In other words, failure to score proficient on the NAEP does not mean you are below grade level, and it especially doesn’t mean you are illiterate.  To be “literate” on an 8th grade level means basic reading comprehension, the ability to decode text and understand meaning; the vast majority of Chicago 8th graders can read and comprehend text and are by all means literate.  NAEP tests go way beyond reading comprehension and into the complex analysis of literature, testing students’ knowledge of allegory, symbol, theme, and figurative language; I’d be hard pressed to believe that former American slaves could read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 masterpiece Uncle Tom’s Cabin and analyze the text’s vast literary devices.

Suggesting that Chicago 8th graders read worse than former American slaves is hurtful and in poor taste–and is flat out untrue.  Greg Lewis, Ph.D., should make more of an effort to take the high road and avoid such insulting comparisons, and learn to get his facts straight to boot.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Achievement Gap, Standardized Testing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s