Susan Johnson: 66 and reading on a 65-year-old level

Again, the news wasn’t good.

The reports read: “West Virginia fourth-grade students showed drops in math and reading scores on the latest Nation’s Report Card and remained below the national average.”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP test showed that for 2019, fourth-graders in the state scored six points below the national average score in reading.

The report says about 30 percent of fourth graders are proficient both in reading and in math, while about one-fourth of eighth graders are proficient in those subjects.

“The average eighth-grade reading score fell 3 points, leaving it six points below the national average.”

Now, before you move your kids to another state, there’s this:

“Nationwide, student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rarely changes more than a point or two over the two years between test administrations,” wrote NAEP in its own press release. “The 2019 scores, released today, bucked that trend in 8th-grade reading, where the average score dropped by four points.”

I’m not at all proficient in math, but this seems to indicate that West Virginia eighth graders dropped only 3 percentage points compared to their national counterparts, but that wasn’t the headline.

I’ve seen the bear dance at this carnival. I know what comes next. A problem is identified in the nation’s schools, and profiteers begin to swarm in with ways to fix it. They send lobbyists to Congress and state legislatures. They wine and dine state schools superintendents and education committee chairs. Next thing you know, the tax payers are out of pocket millions and millions of dollars to corporations and consulting firms with the perfect reading program or software product or electronic devices designed to increase test scores.

But they rarely do.

I think it is planned that way.

Years ago I was sitting in a dentist office and picked up a copy of the National Review. I was drawn to a story that alleged the George H.W. Bush administration deep-sixed a national study that showed American schools were doing great. The story alleged that education lobbyists put pressure on the administration not to publish the report because if there were no problems, they couldn’t sell their educational materials.


Nowadays, gloom and doom reports about learning have been used to fuel the charter school and home school movements. Billions of dollars are being made by the consultants and corporations in these industries. Conservative pundits are already trying to tie results to teacher strikes.

But as Matthew Ladner, executive editor of RedefineEd, found, “Some jurisdictions like West Virginia and Los Angeles had very rough results. Other places without strikes also had rough results, and some of the jurisdictions with strikes like Arizona and Oklahoma had mixed results.”

Never mind. Prepare yourselves for an onslaught of fiery speeches on the Senate floor blaming teachers on the slippage. Yet at closer examination, the scores of West Virginia children are not so bad when you consider our state’s per capita income, teacher pay, adult college graduation rate, poverty levels, population loss, opioid affliction and other demographics.

I’m surprised our children aren’t 20 points below the national average. That’s where we are in most other metrics. Sounds to me like our kids are out-performing our leaders in problem-solving.

I thought and thought about this and finally came up with an hypothesis: maybe adults’ reading has slipped as well. I know I am less able to concentrate on a lengthy piece of dense prose than I used to be. Chalk that up to age, maybe, but I am also spending more time scrolling through my iPhone for information condensed into little easy-to-read chunks or worse — memes. All that nuance is annoying and time consuming. As my good friend Mick Bell from Huntington says, “I’m 66 but I’m reading on a 65 year old level.”

So I conducted my own research. I asked Facebook world to answer a simple question: Do you read more or less than you did five years ago?

Out of 201 responding, 73 admitted they read less. A third of adults surveyed in my unscientific survey don’t read as much as they did five years ago.

I blame Twitter. Today, if I’m waiting in the dentist office, instead of picking up a scholarly journal, I’m on my phone. We can read a T-shirt slogan: “Read the Transcript,” but how many of us are actually reading the transcript?

Susan Johnson was formerly Nicholas County Teacher of the Year. Her column “My Side of the Mountain” appears weekly in the Nicholas Chronicle.

Funerals for Thursday, December 12, 2019

Aide Jr., Mitchell - Noon, Tyree Funeral Home, Oak Hill.

Banks, Betty - 11 a.m., Stevens & Grass Funeral Home, Malden.

Barnett, Harry - 1 p.m., Mountain View Memorial Park, Richwood.

Bennett, Mary - 2 p.m., Lantz Funeral Home, Alderson.

Fortney, Etta - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Goolsby, Neva - 11 a.m., Ridgelawn Memorial Park Abbey of Devotion, Huntington.

Harris, Carl - 1 p.m., Armstrong Funeral Home, Whitesville.

Hartley, Roberta - 1 p.m., Roush Funeral Home, Ravenswood.

Holbrook, Ralph - 11 a.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.

Holstine, Drema - 1:30 p.m., Fidler & Frame Funeral Home, Belle.

Paxton, Justine - Noon, John H. Taylor Funeral Home, Spencer.

Pulliam, Robert - 5:30 p.m., Cross Point Church of God, Beckley.

Runion, Vance - 2 p.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens, Cross Lanes.

Taylor, Ford - 2 p.m., Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery, Dunbar.

Smith, Roberta - 1 p.m., Taylor-Vandale Funeral Home, Spencer.

Stout Jr., Bernard - 2 p.m., Dodd & Reed Funeral Home, Webster Springs.

Walker, Atha - 1 p.m., Bartlett-Nichols Funeral Home, St. Albans.