Literacy Skills of Many College Graduates Found Deficient

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The literacy levels of college graduates range from "a lot less than impressive" to "near alarming," a recent report suggests.

The analysis, conducted by researchers at the Educational Testing Service, is an attempt to pull together existing data that may reveal something about the quality of the nation's higher-education system.

While a number of studies and assessments in recent years have pointed out deficits in precollegiate students' academic skills, comparatively few have scrutinized the knowledge and skills of students in colleges and universities.

Yet, improving the education of those students was one of the national education goals set by President George Bush and the nation's governors in 1990. They called for a substantial increase in the proportion of college graduates "who demonstrate an advanced ability to think critically, communicate effectively, and solve problems."

And the National Education Goals Panel, following up on that recommendation, last spring called for a new national assessment system to gauge those kinds of capabilities in college students. But work on that assessment has since stalled for lack of funding.

For the E.T.S. study, Paul E. Barton and Archie Lapointe, researchers at the Princeton, N.J.-based educational-measurement firm, relied on data from three sources: the National Adult Literacy Survey, a federal survey of 25,000 adults conducted in 1992; scores from graduate-school entrance examinations; and an existing study that summarizes 2,600 other reports on the effects of a college education.

Over all, they concluded, those 2,600 studies show that the collegiate experience improves students' academic and communications skills--even after the data were controlled for characteristics such as normal maturation.

Few Reach High Levels

However, findings from the literacy survey suggest that, even so, many college students' literacy skills may be sorely lacking. For example, the researchers determined that the top 25 percent of adults with only a high school diploma did better at understanding and interpreting prose than the bottom 25 percent of those with a four-year college degree.

They also point out that only 11 percent of four-year-college graduates and 4 percent of two-year-college graduates reach the highest level for prose literacy. That means they are able to perform such tasks as summarizing reading material that describes two ways lawyers may challenge prospective jurors.

In terms of document-reading skills, about half of four-year-college graduates do not reach the second-highest literacy level, which enables them to succeed at tasks such as understanding a bus schedule or using an eligibility pamphlet to calculate the yearly amount a theoretical couple would receive in Supplemental Security Income.

The researchers conclude that college students "are certainly more literate, on average, than those who do not go on to college."

"But their levels of literateness range from a lot less than impressive to mediocre to near alarming, depending on who is making the judgment," they write.

Mixed Evidence

The report also notes, though, that the data tell a somewhat brighter story for college graduates who go on to graduate school. Scores on the quantitative and analytical portions of the Graduate Record Examination, for example, have risen over the last dozen years "even as the numbers [of students] going on to graduate school have risen sharply."

Verbal scores remained nearly level over that period. In subject-specific tests in their major fields of study, graduates' average scores rose in eight subjects and fell in seven.

But several educators pointed out that the report still falls short of providing the kind of information needed to judge whether the nation's colleges and universities are doing a "good enough" job with their students.

"Because we have only a limited, fragmentary picture of the performance of college graduates, it is easy to argue either that higher-education quality is like a glass that is half-full, or half-empty and declining," said Mark Musick, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

"The only indicators we have at this time are small windows into a very large house with big rooms," added Mr. Lapointe of the E.T.S.

The report, called "Learning by Degrees," was paid for in part by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Copies can be obtained for $9.50 each, prepaid, from Policy Information Center, Mail Stop 04-R, Educational Testing Service, Rosedale Road, Princeton, N.J. 08541-0001.

Vol. 14, Issue 16

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