Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Why You No Understand?

by Andre on 23 January 2006

The Pew Charitable Trusts just released the results of an AIR literacy study of American college students that it recently sponsored. The results are not encouraging. I will tell you about them now, but even if you have a degree from a “4-year college” you probably won’t be able to answer simple fact-based questions about my post after you read it. Then again, the fact that I have a degree is no guarantee that my bad writing isn’t at fault for your lack of comprehension. You’ll probably feel better if you just blame me.

You can read the study’s fact sheet or the full report [pdf] online, but for a better feeling for what these results mean, the best place to look is in the appendices [pdf] where you can read some sample questions from the test. There you will find that after reading a one page article about an expo to teach companies how to market to Hispanic Americans, only 27% of adults in 4-year colleges could say what the purpose of the expo was. Note that the bar was not set very high. Examples of correct responses were

To enable people to better serve and sell to the Hispanic community

To improve marketing strategies to the Hispanic community

To enable people to establish contacts to serve the Hispanic community

Granted, I don’t know what the graders would have said about students that responded “To make money for the organizers” which is arguable correct although not mentioned explicitly in the article. Don’t worry too much though, the article wasn’t as easy as I made it sound since it also had things like background about the organizer, the spending power of the Hispanic market, and confusing details like quotation marks and paragraphs.

Even more alarming were the results for quantitative literacy. The fact sheet states that

nearly 20 percent of students in 4-year institutions have only Basic quantitative literacy. Basic literacy skills are those necessary to compare ticket prices or calculate the cost of a sandwich and a salad from a menu.

But don’t worry too much, figuring out the price price of your lunch before the cashier tells you is already pretty hard – the menu probably described what was on the sandwich, contained references to trick items like drinks and deserts, and may have even mentioned that the salad dressing was “complementary”.

While it’s clear that many people are leaving high school and even college without being proficient readers and calculators, I still think that scientific literacy should stay high on our list of education priorities. I am afraid that some people will think this study justifies a return to basics at the expense of science but I would argue that the opposite is true. Training in quantitative science doesn’t only improve ones ability to add and subtract, it also cultivates the analytical mind more generally, helping one see to the essence of a problem or argument. The AIR study is consistent with this idea. Students studying math, science, or engineering scored the highest in all three literacy categories (prose, document, and quantitative) when compared to students studying in other fields.* Do you think this difference is due to a selection effect (people that aren’t good at math don’t study subjects that need it) or due to the training students receive during their studies? I would like to see how/if these scores vary during the course of an undergraduate degree in each of these disciplines.

Don’t forget that the liberal arts include science. You shouldn’t be able to get a “liberal arts” degree without it.

*Although the scores were the highest for math, science, and engineering students in all categories the difference was only statistically significant with the scores of students in business and health for prose; business, education, and social sciences for documents; and business, education, and humanities for quantitative tasks.



  1. Uncle Al    4170 days ago    #
    It isn’t a failure of American education. It is a failure of America – cause and effect driven by Sturgeon’s law plus Gresham’s Law.

    http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110007760

    In short: “Cause and defect.”

    The cure, as for any manufacturing process, is trival. Establish real world quality standards. Continuously test for them and adhere to the results. This is precisely what we have accomplished, albeit 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Anybody but a scholar can get a scholarship.

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