Black Reading Skills: Reports Miss the Mark

Show Me the Numbers: Here's why standardized tests don't tell the whole story.


The report inspired coverage from black media outlets, including, which published an article with this telling headline: “Report: Only 13 Percent of 2011 Black Graduates Proficient in Reading.” The Harvard study found that less than half of white graduates were proficient in reading (40 percent), but this low percentage may matter little to those who consider white students to be the nation’s benchmark.

Similarly, in 2010, the Council of the Great City Schools found that only 12 percent (pdf) of black fourth-grade boys were proficient in reading, compared with 38 percent of white boys, as reported in this New York Times article. More disconcerting, however, is a tacit approval of measures concluding that almost 90 percent of black people lack reading proficiency.

Who’s asking questions like, “How are they measuring reading proficiency?” “Are the tests valid and culturally fair?” “How, and in what conditions, are they administering the tests?” and “How is it possible to have any black publications if almost 90 percent of the black population can’t read?” 

Instead, these tests seem only to reinforce something we think we already know about black people. We’ve all heard the adage, “If you ever want to keep anything away from a black person, hide it in a book.”

Separating Tests From Test Takers

Imagine that your fourth-grade son is randomly selected to take a test of reading proficiency. He is given little information about the purpose of the assessment but can reasonably conclude that the test will not influence his grades or grade promotion at his current school.

To test his level of reading comprehension, he is given a two-page passage about bees. Although he can read every word, the passage is extremely boring to him. Because the test is timed, he has to use a particular style of reading that feels contrived. At the end, he has to answer a series of questions, which have many plausible answers. In general, attributes like imagination and creativity work against him because the test requires him to be literal and deductive.

Such is the experience of children who take the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Both the CGCS report and the Harvard study used NAEP assessment data to find that 88 percent of fourth-grade black boys and 87 percent of all black 12th-graders lack reading proficiency. One can replicate their analyses by using the NAEP website.