Greensboro's African American Community Newspaper since 1967

America’s literacy crisis


The 2024 graduation season is upon us, and it represents a proud milestone in the lives of teenagers. Each year, middle school students graduate and then transition into high school. The same is true of many high school students who graduate and then move on to college.

The graduation ceremony is when family and friends come together to celebrate students’ academic achievements. However, the reality behind a student receiving a high school diploma can sometimes be misleading and disappointing. Generally, it implies that a student who completes the required 12 years of education is now equipped with the basic skills to make them employable within the workforce, adequately prepared for higher education, or ready to enter military service should they choose. We can’t automatically assume this is the case for every student; an individual can receive their diploma and still not possess the fundamental reading and reading comprehension skills.

After the excitement of the graduation ceremonies, we have to get back to the reality of what we are facing rather than remain in denial or apathetic. Statistics show that the literacy rate is dropping among students of all ages. One former teacher and vice principal went as far as to say the nation is facing a “literacy crisis.” The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit organization, claimed that the decline occurred before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Even before the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of U.S. students were unable to read at grade level. “Scores had been getting worse for several years,” they said. “The pandemic made a bad situation worse.”

College professors are also concerned that their students are behind on reading skills, admitting it’s not just little kids struggling. Military brass are concerned that the declining number of well-qualified soldiers compromises U.S. national security. It’s no coincidence that the Army has seen a significant shortfall in recruiting in recent years. According to a publication of the Association of the United States Army, only 23 percent of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are qualified to serve in the Army without a waiver. This is mostly due to obesity, drug use, or the inability to meet academic standards. Everyone, including baby boomers, should be concerned about the lack of future talent being produced by our public school system.

Logistical and analytic thinking come from reading. Reading helps children understand abstract concepts. It helps young people understand the idea of cause and effect, which leads to better decision-making skills. Without a strong academic foundation, young people face an uncertain future. If the Army knows that the lack of qualified soldiers will come with deep consequences, the same is true for the lack of qualified doctors, lawyers, engineers and business leaders. When students are passed from one grade to the next while still underperforming at their grade level, when and how do they ever catch up? We can’t blame this on the kids. Many public education advocates point out how test-based school reforms became the primary measure of student success. One of the main reasons students may graduate without the ability to read is the lack of emphasis on foundational literacy skills in early education. Schools are now judged on their test scores, forcing teachers to focus on test preparation rather than actual learning.

In 2001, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was the chief education initiative of President George W. Bush. It required every student in grades 3 to 8 to take standardized tests in reading and math every year, as well as one test in high school. The NCLB law proclaimed that by 2014, virtually every student would achieve competency in reading and math. This goal was never achieved in 2014 and never will be. Standardized tests do not measure what a child should learn in school. They fail to measure creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, leadership or empathy. It comes down to money when standardized tests can generate additional revenue for school districts when their students perform well. While the authors of NCLB knew it was an impossible goal to achieve, the Obama administration embraced it and reinforced it. They implemented their own program, Race to the Top, which encouraged states to authorize charter school legislation to increase the number of privately managed charters and to pass legislation that tied teachers’ evaluations to their student’s test scores. It created a no-win situation for teachers and students by punishing schools that did not get high enough test scores. It goes further by individually singling out teachers if students in their classes don’t receive higher scores every year.

Standardized tests are a financial boon for testing corporations but useless for teachers and students. More than $1.7 billion is spent on standardized testing in the U.S. each year, according to a study by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings. It becomes another situation where profits are put ahead of people. The fact that our students are ill-prepared will have a long-lasting impact that touches the future and productivity of every American institution.

David W. Marshall is founder of the faith based organization, TRB: The Reconciled Body. He can be reached at