A recent report on reading and math scores has revealed a shocking decline in academic achievement among American teens. This decline should come as no surprise, considering the circumstances imposed on students during the pandemic. With schools locked down and children confined to their homes, spending six hours a day in front of a screen, it was inevitable that some damage would be done.
However, it is important to note that this decline did not suddenly occur with the pandemic. In fact, academic scores were already on a downward trend for the 10 years leading up to COVID-19. Recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed a four-point decline in reading scores for 13-year-olds since 2020, with 9-year-olds dropping five points. When comparing the 2020 numbers to those from 2012, it becomes evident that the average reading score for 13-year-olds had already decreased from 263 to 260 (and further dropped to 256 in 2023). The pandemic simply accelerated an existing decline.
The decline in academic achievement is not limited to reading scores but also extends to older students. The ACT and SAT, which measure college readiness, have also seen decreases in reading ability. In 2009, 67 percent of ACT test-takers reached the goal of readiness in reading, but by 2019, this figure had dropped to 59 percent. Similarly, the average SAT reading score dropped 14 points from 508 in 2005 to 494 in 2016.
These trends are deeply concerning, and they are reflected in students’ attitudes towards reading. According to the NAEP report, only 14 percent of 13-year-olds claimed to read for fun almost every day, down from 27 percent in 2012. This decline in leisure reading habits highlights a significant deterioration in reading culture, which cannot be solely attributed to English classrooms, curriculum, or teachers. Efforts such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core, which focused on reading instruction, have been overshadowed by the leisure habits of children, with technology and social media taking precedence over reading.
The discrepancy between what happens in the classroom and the content consumed during students’ free time is alarming. English teachers spend only four hours a week instructing students, while voices from social media, text messages, videos, and television fill their waking hours. Instead of immersing themselves in assigned readings, many students spend their evenings and nights racing through various online activities. This continuous exposure to digital media has been cultivated by Silicon Valley and has transformed reading advocates into mere background noise.
The pandemic worsened the situation by connecting students to screens for remote learning, which proved counterproductive. Personal computers were once heralded as an educational revolution, with the potential to customize learning to meet individual needs. However, it has become evident that the social implications of screens outweigh their educational benefits. Students spend far too much time on screens engaging in leisure activities, giving priority to messages from friends over teachers’ lessons. With constant distractions, completing homework becomes a challenge, and even shorter readings become daunting tasks.
To address this issue, it may be necessary to consider a ban on excessive technology use in schools. Parents can choose to enroll their children in schools that downplay technology and confiscate phones upon entry. Classical schools, which embrace traditional methods like memorizing poems and speeches, may provide a solution. It is crucial to support teachers and administrators who value these approaches, as they often face resistance from progressive educators who champion innovation but overlook the importance of past educational practices.
Realistically, the entire educational system may not undergo a significant transformation, and pro-tech educators may not revise their views. In such situations, parents must make choices that align with their concerns and values. This may involve selecting alternative schooling options, but it is important to remember that many other parents share these same concerns.
In conclusion, the decline in reading and math scores among American teens should serve as a wakeup call for educators, parents, and policymakers. The pandemic has accelerated a pre-existing decline in academic achievement, which is strongly influenced by students’ leisure habits, specifically their excessive use of technology. To address this issue, it may be necessary to limit technology use in schools and focus on traditional teaching methods that prioritize reading culture and student engagement. Parents must take a proactive role in advocating for the educational experiences they believe will best nurture their children’s academic development.