American youth need strong reading and writing skills to succeed in school, work, and in life. Most students are able to "decode" or sound out words on a page, but far too many then fail to master critical reading and writing skills that include the ability to comprehend the meaning of what they read, understand the use of increasingly complex vocabulary, or to write for various purposes. Yet these are skills they desperately need if they are to succeed in college or work after high school.
In fact, 70 percent of 8th graders and 65 percent of 12th graders do not read at grade level, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card. That translates into approximately 6 million struggling readers in grades seven through twelve. Improving the ability of older students to read and write at high levels must become a national priority, especially since students in the bottom quartile of achievement are twenty times more likely to drop out of school than those at the top.
In recent years, federal and state policymakers have directed considerable resources toward improving the literacy skills of the nation's youngest students, with the goal of helping every child to master the basics of reading by the end of the third grade. However, policymakers have not invested in older children. The consequences are clear: reading levels on national tests have risen over the past few years in the early grades, but achievement for middle and high school students has stagnated. Unless the nation makes a greater investment in reading and writing instruction in grades 4-12, it will squander the considerable resources it has spent on students in preschool and in grades K-3, and it will undermine its investments in the teaching of math, science, and other subjects.
Most importantly, students will continue to languish in middle and high schools that fail to help them succeed academically and fail to prepare them for a world beyond high school. The twenty-five fastest-growing professions have far greater than average literacy demands, while the fastest-declining professions have lower than average literacy demands. Our nation's economic and educational security depend upon graduating more students with far better literacy skills than most students currently have.