5th-Grade Level

Read a piece in the SF Chronicle this morning about how infant car seat installation manuals are being rewritten to make them more understandable. “That’s good,” I thought. I read on. Turns out the manuals are considered too difficult to understand because they are written at a 10th-grade reading level, and include really hard words like “automobile” and “collision” and “remedied.” Turns out that health-related information is best digested when written at a 5th-grade reading level, so they’ll be changing these words to “car” and “crash” and “fixed.” Okay, whatever it takes, I thought. Then I digested the kicker:

“… data suggest that nearly a quarter of U.S. adults read at or below a fifth-grade level, and at least 25 percent read at about an eighth-grade level.”

Read that sentence again (if you can). This is the most prosperous country on earth and one quarter of our citizens are leaving the educational system reading like 5th graders? Fully one half graduate as if they had never been to high school at all? I knew illiteracy was a problem in the U.S., but I had no idea we were talking about levels like this. I am dumbfounded. Blown away.

Next time you get confused about how the country can be in such an unthinkable political quaqmire, don’t forget: These people vote.

Music: Macy Gray :: Gimme All Your Lovin’ Or I Will Kill You

10 Replies to “5th-Grade Level”

  1. IMHO, this fraud, plain and simple.

    My wife was a elementary school teacher (2nd grade) over here in North Carolina (motto: #1 in pork production, #48 in education!). After about three years she quit because (among other things) the pricipal refused to let her hold back students. She was told, “holding them back would cause too much harm to their self esteem.” I don’t think there was a single student that was ever held back in the entire school while this principal was in office.

    I’d like to see all these students this principal “helped” show up at her front door in about 8 more years when they’ve graduated from high school and the only job they are qualified for is night cook at the local fast food stand.

  2. I’m like, oh my god! like, maybe, like, *television* has something to, like, do with it?

    I mean, totally!

    and check this out – some OECD numbers on international literacy rates:


    The US doesn’t stack up all that badly. It has more people at the extremes (both high and low reading level) than other countries. It’s 10th overall (out of 20) among OECD members. Finland is #1. Internationally around 75% of people are in the middle reading levels. Don’t forget just by having a 4-year college degree you’re in the top 10%!

  3. A quarter and 25 percent.

    I love how, in an article about illiteracy, they’ve used two different ways to state the same value. It’s almost as if they were trying to make the article difficult to read…

  4. The article says, “… data suggest that nearly a quarter of U.S. adults read at or below a fifth-grade level, and at least 25 percent read at about an eighth-grade level.”

    Xenex’s comments are right on. Using “one quarter” and “25 percent” in the same sentence is goofy.

    The article does state, in its own way, that the lower quartile of the sample population reads at 5th grade level or worse. Err, excuse me… “nearly” one quarter. Assuming “nearly” means less than 25%, we can infer that lower quartile point is actually slightly above the _5th-grade_ level.

    After that, we have a ballpark statement about a _different_ 25% subset of the sample group who read at “about an eighth-grade level”. What’s the uncertainty here? Plus or minus one grade level, two? Can I assume that this second 25% subset is the set between the first quartile and the median? No! There is no way to know based what the article says.

    My informal survey of San Francisco Chronicle editors concludes that 1 editor writes about statistics at an unsatisfactory level. ;-)

  5. “these people vote” you say … but they probably don’t. Less than half of eligible citizens actually vote here, even in major elections, and for some elections it’s as low as 30% of those eligible.

    I’m pretty sure that the more education you have, the more likely you are to vote. Which means that 50% of the population are functionally illiterate, *and* effectively unrepresented in the political process. No wonder poverty and homelessness are so rampant.

    BTW, half of the children in California live in families where the income is less than 200% of the poverty line ($25K a year for a family of five). see http://www.census.gov/hhes/hlthins/lowinckid.html

  6. I’d like to see an overlay map of the world with dates of initial introduction and widespread adoption of the various major technologies by region. Say, wheels, agriculture, writing, automobiles, computers.

    Writing (and therefore reading) is not *that* old as a technology — it’s younger than agriculture, and not everyone in the world practices that (tho the numbers living in non-ag societies are pretty small). Since it takes time to adopt new tech, shouldn’t we just consider non-readers as the late adopters?

    Of course in the computer age those who read and write well have a major advantage over those who don’t.

    Another point… Having a tool makes it hard to imagine living without it. I just couldn’t imagine living without a car. And I just couldn’t imagine living without words and books, either, but millions of people do.

  7. Chris, thanks for the perspective via the OECD numbers. Although I’d still hope to see “the most prosperous country” place better than 10th. Although the U.S. has economic issues involved that change the game – no socialism means more poor communities, lots of parents not encouraging kids to take school seriously, etc.

  8. Xenex and Kartoffel, I don’t understand your critique. Not only is there nothing wrong with using “25%” and “one quarter” in the same sentence or paragraph to mean the same thing, but it’s the right thing to do. Writers always try to avoid repeating the same phrase in proximity. This is why we have thesauruseseses.

    Beyond that, such picayune quibbling seems to sidestep the point – illiteracy in the U.S. is far beyond what most of us imagine.

  9. Dylan, you’re right on the voting thing. So let’s rephrase that: “These people are allowed to vote.” IOW, issues are complex. Should some moderate level of education be a prerequisite to registering a vote in a complex world? I know I know, that’s a can of worms…

    On the other hand, if someone is nearly illiterate and therefore unlikely to vote, and they care enough to vote anyway, they probably deserve to.

    Gee, Wally, social engineering is *hard*!

  10. Chris – re: reading not being an old enough technology to have become widespread? You’ve just taken the term “apologist” to a whole ‘nuther level ;)

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