How the “Right to Literacy” Debate Resolved and Its Impact

By Madeline Goodman

On April 23, 2020, two events occurred that have a curious relationship to one another. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card, released grade 8 results from the 2018  civics and U.S. history assessments, which showed a stagnation in progress for students in civics and a decline in the U.S. history score since 2014. That same day, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit overturned last year’s federal district court decision in Gray B. v. Whitmer. In this case, public school students in Detroit sued the state of Michigan, stating that lower-income school children in the Detroit public school district (DPSD), who were predominantly African American, had been systematically denied access to a quality education given to children in more wealthy communities. The court of appeals agreed, declaring that literacy constitutes a “fundamental right” under the U.S. Constitution. Since that time, settlements in the case have been reached. The “right to literacy” stands as the opinion of the court, which can still be cited in future cases, though no legal precedence has been established.

On the face of it, these two events may not seem to have much in common, but if you dig just beneath the surface you unearth the connection between them. Dr. Peggy Carr, the Associate Commissioner for the Assessment Division at the National Center of Education Statistics, made that connection clear when answering a question from an Education Dive reporter. The reporter asked about the relationship between the recent NAEP reading results and the uninspiring results from the U.S. history and civics assessments that ask students to apply higher-order skills. “You have got to read,” she said, “You have to have that fundamental skill under your belt before you can discern what you’re being asked to do [in the NAEP U.S. history and civics assessments].” Similarly, the judges on the appeals court affirmed the strong tie between literacy and democratic citizenship, concluding: “without the literacy provided by a basic minimum education, it is impossible to participate in our democracy.” The decision also underscored how central education in civics and U.S. history is to the very practice of examining and interrogating long-held beliefs about freedom, equity and the role of government.

Some clearly have a different opinion about the value and meaning behind the NAEP assessment results, positing that the United States has never been a “historically minded” country and that the lackluster results of NAEP assessments in civics and U.S history over the past many decades are not a cause for concern.  This is especially true if one focuses narrowly on the results as simply an indicator of whether students can accurately recall key facts about U.S. history and how our government functions. Yet, the tendency to separate knowledge about U.S. history from the practice of doing history is problematic. Is it important that school-age children are learning historical knowledge? Is it more important that they are learning the tools of historical thinking: the ability to read various sources and text types, analyze arguments and viewpoints about the past, integrate knowledge, and evaluate and support claims with solid evidence? These questions should not be posed as an either/or. Historical knowledge and skills are intertwined. Similarly, understanding and knowing about our government and participating in our democracy go hand in hand. The frameworks for both the NAEP U.S. history and civics assessments make these points clear. Children cannot perform higher-level thinking skills in domains such as U.S. history or civics if they lack the opportunity to learn the literacy skills necessary to acquire content knowledge.

There are additional ties between the NAEP program and the Detroit case. As the recent decision outlined in its section on the history of federal court cases regarding the right to literacy over the past 70 years, several previous cases failed to make their way successfully through the court system because they did not adequately substantiate claims that certain groups of children were denied access to education. The Detroit complaint explicitly provided such evidence by citingamong other things, the 2015 NAEP reading and mathematics results, where fourth- and eighth-grade school children in the DPSD scored below their peers in every other participating large-city school district. The complaint cited other key NAEP data: an astounding 94% and 95% of DPSD African-American fourth-grade students were below the NAEP Proficient level in reading and mathematics, respectively; 93% of African-American eighth-graders were below NAEP Proficient in reading and 96% below this level in mathematics. This data could also be disaggregated by parental educational level at grade 8 (an important proxy for socioeconomic status) to provide further evidence of the inequality of opportunity provided to low-income families whose children attend the Detroit public school system.

This decision, and other current court cases regarding the right to literacy and education, reveal that the very skills the NAEP U.S. history and civics assessment measure, both the knowledge of the past and the need to evaluate that knowledge to formulate arguments and actively participate in our democracy, have taken center stage. Regardless of your stance on whether literacy should be now conceived as a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution, by taking a position you are supporting that the very nature of the Court’s work, as well as one’s ability to critically evaluate the facts and evidence in this important case, requires skills that are central to the study of history and civics. Reevaluating, recontextualizing and reformulating arguments has changed the very course of history and it will continue to do so. If we want the next generation to meaningfully engage in this process we need to provide them with an equal opportunity to learn fundamental literacy skills, and the higher-order thinking skills that draw upon these.

Madeline Goodman is an ETS researcher and author of numerous reports focused on education and measures of human and social capital.