By Dr. Karen Hiltz

Have you ever watched a “man on the street” segment where a news person goes on the street to ask passers-by a question about American history or shows them pictures of current elected officials or past Presidents? 

Well, if you haven’t seen one, you should. 

They are quite entertaining. On the flip side, I find their responses alarming when the majority can’t identify cabinet-level government officials—let alone our founding fathers and quotes from the U.S. Constitution or Declaration of Independence.

I ask myself, “Why don’t people know this information?” and I’ve concluded that it boils down to the education children receive during their K-12 years. 

Why do I believe this? There are several reasons for this conclusion, but a primary one is test data information. The U.S. Department of Education is the data warehouse for a range of programs around the nation. The department provides data and statistics on:

  • K-12 students and schools
  • colleges and universities
  • student outcomes 
  • grant and student loan information

What Test Data Reveals

Over the years, I’ve followed assessment data, which is released as The Nation’s Report Card by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) under the U.S. Department of Education. These scores reflect the percentage of students that are “at or above proficiency” in each subject.

Before we go any further, let’s think about the definition NAEP uses when claiming scores are at or above proficiency:

“This level represents solid academic performance for each NAEP assessment. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

This definition uses the words “academic performance,” “competency,” “knowledge,” and “skills” to claim that students are receiving a certain level of education relevant to the subject matter. 

Students are tested in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. Here are the latest scores, which are from the 2019 reporting year. (Keep in mind this is pre-pandemic data.)

 

Notice that four of the five subject areas decrease in proficiency as students’ progress from the 4th grade to the 12th grade. 

In addition, none of the five subjects score above 50% at any grade level. This is quite frightening when you connect the dots and realize that today’s children are tomorrow’s doctors, lawyers, elected officials, business owners, plumbers, electricians, teachers, and auto mechanics. 

Think about how this will impact everyday life.

Let’s look at these numbers a little closer to see what they are actually telling us. 

Reading

For reading, the 4th grade assessment reported that 34% (or approximately one-third) of students are performing at a “competent” level that gives them the skills necessary to succeed. 

On the flip side, this data reveals that 66% of students move to the next grade with reading skills that are below grade level. They struggle with reading, don’t comprehend what they do read, or simply can’t read. 

However, this is the one subject that did report an increase by the 12th grade.

Writing

The 4th grade writing scores are reported at 27%, significantly lower than reading. This clearly reflects what educators have claimed for decades: poor readers make for poor writers

By the time students graduate, they score even lower at 25%, reflecting a deterioration of their writing skills between 4th and 12th grade. Since they had eight years to hone their skills, this is quite disturbing. 

Could this be a reason symbols are becoming a more common way of communicating in our society? From street signs and direction signs in buildings to all the emojis used on social media platforms, we have become a society that compensates for the lowest common denominator.

Math

Math is a unit of measurement we use on a daily basis. Whether we are counting out money, measuring ingredients for a recipe, or simply counting the number of shoes we have in our closet, mastering the basics of math is necessary. 

However, math scores start out at 40% in 4th grade—the highest out of the five subject areas—but decrease to 24% by the 12th grade. That equates to a 60% decrease in performance and competency. 

It’s no wonder some people struggle to give change at the register.

U.S. History

The most disturbing are the U.S. History scores, beginning at 19% and declining to 11% by the time students graduate—a shocking 58% decrease! 

What are students learning about our country and culture that would bring about such poor assessment scores? An old saying warns that if we don’t know the past, we are doomed to repeat it.

Civics is only slightly better, with a starting score of 26% that decreases to 23% by the 12th grade. It’s clear that students aren’t equipped with an understanding of the structure of our government, how it operates, why we have a constitutional republic versus a monarchy, and what that means. 

I believe man-on-the-street segments make it clear that people lack knowledge and understanding of why the United States is the greatest experiment in the history of the world. The above scores reinforce this.

Curriculum and Instruction Drive Test Scores

Robin S. Eubanks, author of Credentialed to Destroy, traces the psychological and sociological tenets dating back to the 1800s that put education on the path that it’s on today. Based on the writings and teachings of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Johann Fichte, John Dewey, John Goodlad, Edward Thorndike, and others, it’s clear these like-minded thinkers have intentionally applied their ideology to the education system. 

This philosophy focuses on creating change by limiting knowledge and understanding—a goal that could be easily accomplished by transforming the way students learn to read.

Dating back to the founding of the United States, reading was an essential subject based on learning letters, syllables, and words, which facilitated comprehension. 

Essentially, it was a system grounded in phonics. When Noah Webster created his speller to educate people during the founding of our republic, he was also building a common language. His efforts were rooted in his belief that understanding based on a united language would promote a united culture.

Fast forward to the 21st century…and we find ourselves in a situation where students have been steeped in methods and programs that do not support proficient skills for reading (or other reported subjects, as shown above.) 

The education system eliminated phonics and changed to a sight-reading technique. The results have been disastrous. Trying to memorize words versus learning to pronounce them is harmful at best. We are reaping what we’ve sown.

As Eubanks states in her book, individuals who were intent on realizing a Marxist utopia through political and cultural change knew the education system was the best place to focus. Training citizens to read, comprehend, and have individual thought was not the objective. These Marxist thinkers needed curricula and instruction methods that would steer students toward a specific way of thinking. Their efforts resulted in dumbed-down academics, creating a culture that overemphasizes emotional IQ.

Looking to the Future

We’ve been living in an education quandary since the lockdowns began in March 2020. 

Schools closed, many school districts weren’t prepared for what the virus thrust upon them, and parents and children were forced to operate solely via technology. Everyone was wading through uncertainty. 

So, what will the next round of test scores reveal? 

Schools have spent the last two years dealing with closures, union demands, virus variants, and job instability. Though they administered assessments during these tumultuous times, consistency was compromised. Some school districts tested in the spring while others postponed until the fall. This led to some states reporting scores, while others did not.

Inconsistency is one of the major flaws of data reporting. Because the system fails to comprehend that each student is a unique individual, controls vary. Therefore, assessments in a classroom can not and will not provide statistically significant results like those found in a controlled lab environment.

Therefore, assessments should not be the primary measure of academic success.

For decades the education system has been failing too many students. We must get back to the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. If we want to see improvement in test scores, or in student learning in general, then we must embrace the basics.

Also, we must consider individual needs, talents, skills, interests, and create an environment that values these elements. 

This one-size-fits-all road we’ve been traveling must come to an end.

 

Note from the Editor: We thank all our contributors for their insights and expertise. However, the views of guest authors or interviewees are not necessarily those of Noah Webster Educational Foundation.


About the Author: 

Dr. Karen HiltzDr. Karen Hiltz served in the U.S. Navy and is a retired Federal Acquisition & Procurement Professional. She entered the education environment in 2009, where she taught business courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In 2015, she was elected to the local public school board in Franklin County, VA, and created The Apple Report Facebook page to communicate with her constituents. In 2016, she was appointed to the Virginia Western Community College (VWCC) Local Advisory Board. She has served on a private school board and educational non-profit boards (including the board of the Noah Webster Educational Foundation), written many articles on education, and is a published author. Dr. Hiltz holds a B.S. and MBA in Management and an Ed.D. in Leadership Studies. She is married to Chuck Hiltz. They have three children and five grandchildren and currently reside in Florida.