The Question Students Flunked





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How well do students comprehend what they read? The answer provided by the federal government's latest test is not very reassuring. According to the National Asessment of Educational Progress, a substantial number of twelfth graders have trouble meeting basic reading proficiency standards. Translation: they can't read.

The National Report Card, as it's called, found that students are doing worse now than a decade ago. In 1992 one in five seniors flunked the test. In 2002 one in four flunked. (The survey found that students in the 4th and 8th grades did a little better than their counterparts in the 1990s.)

Sample Question: Students were asked to read the following passage from FCC chairman Newton Minow's famous address in 1961 denouncing television as a"vast wasteland." They were then asked to answer this question:

What was the main point of Mr. Minow's address?

The results? According to the chart provided by the NAEP:



2002 National Performance Results

Score
Percentage of Students
Evidence of full comprehension
  47%
Evidence of partial or surface comprehension
  38%
Evidence of little or no comprehension
  12%
Omitted Item
  2%
Off Task
  2%
 Scale bar 
Note:
  • These results are for public and nonpublic school students.
  • Percentage may not add to 100 due to rounding.
  • The Passage

    Newton Minow (1926– ) was appointed by President John Kennedy as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency responsible for regulating the use of the public airwaves. On May 9, 1961, he spoke to 2,000 members of the National Association of Broadcasters and told them that the daily fare on television was "a vast wasteland." Minow's indictment of commercial television launched a national debate about the quality of programming. After Minow's speech, the television critic for The New York Times wrote: "Tonight some broadcasters were trying to find dark explanations for Mr. Minow's attitude. In this matter the viewer possibly can be a little helpful; Mr. Minow has been watching television."

    . . . Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership. In a few years this exciting industry has grown from a novelty to an instrument of overwhelming impact on the American people. It should be making ready for the kind of leadership that newspapers and magazines assumed years ago, to make our people aware of their world.

    Ours has been called the jet age, the atomic age, the space age. It is also, I submit, the television age. And just as history will decide whether the leaders of today's world employed the atom to destroy the world or rebuild it for mankind's benefit, so will history decide whether today's broadcasters employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or debase them. . . .

    Like everybody, I wear more than one hat. I am the chairman of the FCC. I am also a television viewer and the husband and father of other television viewers. I have seen a great many television programs that seemed to me eminently worthwhile, and I am not talking about the much-bemoaned good old days of "Playhouse 90" and "Studio One."

    I am talking about this past season. Some were wonderfully entertaining, such as "The Fabulous Fifties," the "Fred Astaire Show" and the "Bing Crosby Special"; some were dramatic and moving, such as Conrad's "Victory" and "Twilight Zone"; some were marvelously informative, such as "The Nation's Future," "CBS Reports," and "The Valiant Years." I could list many more—programs that I am sure everyone here felt enriched his own life and that of his family. When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better.

    But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet, or rating book to distract you—and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

    You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western badmen, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And, most of all, boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it.

    Is there one person in this room who claims that broadcasting can’t do better?. . .

    Why is so much of television so bad? I have heard many answers: demands of your advertisers; competition for ever higher ratings; the need always to attract a mass audience; the high cost of television programs; the insatiable appetite for programming material—these are some of them. Unquestionably these are tough problems not susceptible to easy answers.

    But I am not convinced that you have tried hard enough to solve them. I do not accept the idea that the present overall programming is aimed accurately at the public taste. The ratings tell us only that some people have their television sets turned on, and, of that number, so many are tuned to one channel and so many to another. They don't tell us what the public might watch if they were offered half a dozen additional choices. A rating, at best, is an indication of how many people saw what you gave them. Unfortunately it does not reveal the depth of the penetration or the intensity of reaction, and it never reveals what the acceptance would have been if what you gave them had been better—if all the forces of art and creativity and daring and imagination had been unleashed. I believe in the people's good sense and good taste, and I am not convinced that the people's taste is as low as some of you assume. . . .

    Certainly I hope you will agree that ratings should have little influence where children are concerned. The best estimates indicate that during the hours of 5 to 6 p.m., 60 percent of your audience is composed of children under twelve. And most young children today, believe it or not, spend as much time watching television as they do in the schoolroom. I repeat—let that sink in—most young children today spend as much time watching television as they do in the schoolroom. It used to be said that there were three great influences on a child: home, school and church. Today there is a fourth great influence, and you ladies and gentlemen control it.

    If parents, teachers, and ministers conducted their responsibilities by following the ratings, children would have a steady diet of ice cream, school holidays, and no Sunday school. What about your responsibilities? Is there no room on television to teach, to inform, to uplift, to stretch, to enlarge the capacities of our children? Is there no room for programs deepening their understanding of children in other lands? Is there no room for a children's news show explaining something about the world to them at their level of understanding? Is there no room for reading the great literature of the past, teaching them the great traditions of freedom? There are some fine children's shows, but they are drowned out in the massive doses of cartoons, violence, and more violence. Must these be your trademarks? Search your consciences and see if you cannot offer more to your young beneficiaries whose future you guide so many hours each and every day.

    What about adult programming and ratings? You know, newspaper publishers take popularity ratings too. The answers are pretty clear; it is almost always the comics, followed by the advice-to-the-lovelorn columns. But, ladies and gentlemen, the news is still on the front page of all newspapers, the editorials are not replaced by more comics, the newspapers have not become one long collection of advice to the lovelorn. Yet newspapers do not need a license from the government to be in business—they do not use public property. But in television—where your responsibilities as public trustees are so plain—the moment that the ratings indicate that Westerns are popular, there are new imitations of Westerns on the air faster than the old coaxial cable could take us from Hollywood to New York. . . .

    Let me make clear that what I am talking about is balance. I believe that the public interest is made up of many interests. There are many people in this great country, and you must serve all of us. You will get no argument from me if you say that, given a choice between a Western and a symphony, more people will watch the Western. I like Westerns and private eyes too—but a steady diet for the whole country is obviously not in the public interest. We all know that people would more often prefer to be entertained than stimulated or informed. But your obligations are not satisfied if you look only to popularity as a test of what to broadcast. You are not only in show business; you are free to communicate ideas as well as relaxation. You must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives. It is not enough to cater to the nation's whims—you must also serve the nation's needs. . . .

    Let me address myself now to my role, not as a viewer but as chairman of the FCC. . .I want to make clear some of the fundamental principles which guide me.

    First, the people own the air. They own it as much in prime evening time as they do at 6 o'clock Sunday morning. For every hour that the people give you, you owe them something. I intend to see that your debt is paid with service.

    Second, I think it would be foolish and wasteful for us to continue any worn-out wrangle over the problems of payola, rigged quiz shows, and other mistakes of the past. . . .

    Third, I believe in the free enterprise system. I want to see broadcasting improved and I want you to do the job. . . .

    Fourth, I will do all I can to help educational television. There are still not enough educational stations, and major centers of the country still lack usable educational channels. . . .

    Fifth, I am unalterably opposed to governmental censorship. There will be no suppression of programming which does not meet with bureaucratic tastes. Censorship strikes at the taproot of our free society.

    Sixth, I did not come to Washington to idly observe the squandering of the public's airwaves. The squandering of our airwaves is no less important than the lavish waste of any precious natural resource . . . .

    What you gentlemen broadcast through the people's air affects the people's taste, their knowledge, their opinions, their understanding of themselves and of their world. And their future. The power of instantaneous sight and sound is without precedent in mankind's history. This is an awesome power. It has limitless capabilities for good—and for evil. And it carries with it awesome responsibilities—responsibilities which you and I cannot escape.


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    More Comments:


    Josh Greenland - 7/7/2003

    H, what you say makes sense to me as part of a solution, but I don't know enough about education really to offer an opinion. I don't know if anyone has ever done a study of the change (decline) in literacy of American school children over the last hundred years or more, but I'd be interested to when the rates dropped. Did it happen in the 1950s? If so, then as has been suggested here, television might be the main cause. Not knowing why the literacy rate dropped, or even when, I'd be at a loss to suggest anything.


    Evy - 7/7/2003

    I totally agree with what this guy was saying, about the T.V.
    And no wonder the reading compehension has gone down.
    Too much T.V.????


    Herodotus - 6/29/2003

    I'm glad we've settled this amicably.

    I do agree with you that it's not good that comprehension levels have fallen to the pit that they are in. For example, compare a sixth grade math or history text from the first decade of the last century with one used nowadays...and the collapse of reading levels is very apparent. How do we counter this? Perhaps jacking the standards levels up to much higher levels in elementary schools...if you expect more of kids from an earlier age, they become used to giving their best.


    Josh Greenland - 6/29/2003

    "I'm confused still as to whether it was multiple choice or essay. You say both:" [followed by quote where I do say both]

    My error. Some of the testing was done with multiple choice questions, but the Vast Wasteland comprehension question was in essay form.

    "Since it wasn't clear from the start what the method of response was, it was next to impossible to judge from the article what to think about the claim that the students were "failing" the question--failing how? How are we to evaluate that they are failing if we don't know the method. Bad writing? Poorly worded multiple choice answers? Tiny fonts?"

    The essay answers were handwritten, at least in the examples shown in the PDF file.

    "If you're asking a serious question about literacy standards, that's perfectly fine and is something I share your concern about.

    "If you're interested in ad hominem attacks, however... ("Obviously HNN's literacy standards are higher than yours.") then I don't think there's much to talk about."

    I was trying to ask a serious question about literacy standards. Now I'd say I asked in the wrong way. I don't want to add to the ad hominem idiocy on this board, or to the unnecessary jousting.

    I gathered from your post earlier that you thought partial comprehension was acceptable for young readers. Given your apparent level of education, I found that hard to believe, and wanted to make sure you were saying what I thought you were.


    Herodotus - 6/28/2003

    I'm confused still as to whether it was multiple choice or essay. You say both:

    •"It was multiple choice. I went to the website URLed in the article and did a search on Minow, and found it at the end of the resulting 20-page PDF. "

    •"When I looked at the essay questions at the end of the PDF that I mentioned, the kids didn't have to write much to have an answer rated "full comprehension."

    Whichever it is, I'm saddened that we had to find this out on our own, and that the HNN staff writing the article couldn't put it into the piece in the first place. Since it wasn't clear from the start what the method of response was, it was next to impossible to judge from the article what to think about the claim that the students were "failing" the question--failing how? How are we to evaluate that they are failing if we don't know the method. Bad writing? Poorly worded multiple choice answers? Tiny fonts?

    If you're asking a serious question about literacy standards, that's perfectly fine and is something I share your concern about.

    If you're interested in ad hominem attacks, however... ("Obviously HNN's literacy standards are higher than yours.") then I don't think there's much to talk about.


    Josh Greenland - 6/28/2003

    "We still don't know if the kids had to answer a multiple choice or an essay question."

    It was multiple choice. I went to the website URLed in the article and did a search on Minow, and found it at the end of the resulting 20-page PDF.

    "I'm interested in the factual, presentation of the data offered in the chart, not a subjective interpretation of how we might think, based on limited information provided here, about how the kids answered the question."

    What??

    "Mr. Greenland, do you have something more serious to offer in response to my original post, or just more chirping of little birds?"

    My question was entirely serious. You chose to misread it.

    When I looked at the essay questions at the end of the PDF that I mentioned, the kids didn't have to write much to have an answer rated "full comprehension." Based on that, I suspect that reading a bunch of the essay answers rated at "partial/surface comprehension" would be depressing.

    I'll expand my question so you will be less able to misunderstand it:

    Would you accept a child of yours partially understanding what s/he reads consistently? Would you say your child's education was going well, or would you try to change things so that your child would fully comprehend what s/he reads?

    If you would not accept of child of yours only partially understanding what s/he reads, why is it okay for other people's kids to only partially understand what they read?


    Herodotus - 6/27/2003

    obviously, smobviously. We still don't know if the kids had to answer a multiple choice or an essay question. I'm interested in the factual, presentation of the data offered in the chart, not a subjective interpretation of how we might think, based on limited information provided here, about how the kids answered the question.

    Mr. Greenland, do you have something more serious to offer in response to my original post, or just more chirping of little birds?


    Tina Braxton - 6/26/2003

    Mr. Minow made this statement when I was in the first grade. Over the next few years, my schoolmates and I heard and read excerpts from that statement many times, as did my children, who went to school in the 1980s and 90s. The statement is simple, straightforward, and devoid of jargon and difficult words. A sixth-grader should be able to read and understand it.

    That such a simple statement should be used at all, to test twelfth-graders, is bad enough. That fewer than half demonstrated "full comprehension" is truly alarming.

    Learning to read actually takes very little instruction--the key is practice. It is the responsibility of parents to teach their children good habits, like reading, playing outdoors, and keeping the TV turned off, until one of those few, rare, truly good shows comes on.




    Josh Greenland - 6/23/2003

    Obviously HNN's literacy standards are higher than yours.

    Would you accept a kid of yours only partially understanding what s/he reads?


    Herodotus - 6/23/2003

    So where the kids supposed to answer in essay form or in multiple choice? I presume in essay form.

    According to the chart provided, 85% of children answering this question demonstrated partial or total comprehension. That's 47% at full comprehension, and 38% at partial. If partial means greater than 50% credit, then that is, albeit low, still a passing grade. If partial credit includes things above and below the F grade, then it's not unreasonable to assume that at least 4% of the kids are answering the question well enough to get a D grade or above.

    If that's the case, then a majority of the kids are passing the question.

    So why is it that if a majority of the kids who approach this question are passing it, HNN thinks this is a big deal?


    NaughtyPundit - 6/22/2003

    Hell, no wonder so many kids flunked. I almost feel asleep reading that long-winded bureaucrat's speech. Couldn't they have come up with something a tad better?