In an article for the The Root, published today, Dr. Ivory A. Toldson discusses the alarmingly low numbers for black students’ reading proficiency and why they should be considered with a grain of salt. The numbers, generated by researchers at Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, were released late last year and state that the U.S. reading proficiency rate is at 31 percent, overall, which “compares reasonably well with other European countries.” Broken down according to the race of students, the results show:

In reading, 40 percent of white students and 41 percent of those from Asia and the Pacific Islands were identified as proficient. Only 13 percent of African American students, 5 percent of Hispanic students, and 18 percent of Native American students were so identified.

Thirteen percent proficiency for black readers is certainly a dismal prognosis, but Dr. Toldson believes that the research, as conducted through timed testing, isn’t producing accurate numbers:

Who’s asking questions like, “How are they measuring reading proficiency?” “Are the tests valid and culturally fair?” “How, and in what conditions, are they administering the tests?” and “How is it possible to have any black publications if almost 90 percent of the black population can’t read?”

He asserts that an unwillingness to account for different learning and assessment styles is a likelier culprit than gross inability on the part of students, and when he posits a plausible scenario, in which the timed aspect of testing and unengaging readings make for lower than accurate results, it’s easy to see that his point is well worth considering:

Imagine that your fourth-grade son is randomly selected to take a test of reading proficiency. He is given little information about the purpose of the assessment but can reasonably conclude that the test will not influence his grades or grade promotion at his current school.

To test his level of reading comprehension, he is given a two-page passage about bees. Although he can read every word, the passage is extremely boring to him. Because the test is timed, he has to use a particular style of reading that feels contrived. At the end, he has to answer a series of questions, which have many plausible answers. In general, attributes like imagination and creativity work against him because the test requires him to be literal and deductive.

Considering that, of the researched sample, no racial group of students could claim that even fifty percent of its members were proficient readers, it’s well past time to redesign these tests. Later in his piece, Dr. Toldson points to solutions like allowing students to choose some of the works they’ll read during a school year and educators working one-on-one with them, with attention to their individuality as learners.

There’s also in-home instruction to be considered. While reading to our children from a very early age is certainly an invaluable preparation for boosting their proficiency, it’s also important for parents to know the details about how their children are being assessed. If time is a component, if the reading of dry or uninteresting material is necessary, and if the questions about that material aren’t immediately obvious, then it couldn’t hurt to tackle some of these challenges at home, occasionally “quizzing” our children and training them to work within rigid time constraints. Until an overhaul in state and national assessment of reading proficiency is done, it might be a good idea for parents to have their children read, not just works that interest them, but ones that wouldn’t.

There are no quick or obvious fixes, but reassessing the flaws in testing rather than the flaws in students is a good place to start.

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