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Defined as the ability to read and write, literacy is one of the most important aspects of a student’s education tied with critical thinking. While this is a simple definition, literacy is one of many keys that can be used to observe a student’s growth in their studies. Students across the country take many different courses including Honors and AP level courses, but just how well are students learning? By looking at literacy levels, educators can determine whether or not a student is improving, and they can look at how well the education system is working in the country compared to previous years and against other countries. Although the United States (U.S.) acts like they’re at the top of the charts education wise, turns out, the U.S. is far below the standard. Because there are too many politics involved with the education system, and schools excessively rely on standardized testing, the U.S. education system isn’t teaching students to retain information. In order to raise literacy rates across the country, not only can the government reform the education system, but schools can also use different types of assessments to educate students.According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the United States is ranked 15th out of 24 countries in the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) with an average literacy level of 271. The U.S.’s level is below the PIAAC’s average of 273 and also behind countries such as Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway (IES NCES National Center for Education Statistics). These levels were taken from adults ages 16 to 65. While it’s clear the U.S. is lagging behind compared to other countries, many different groups of people within the U.S. are lagging behind each other too. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy study, only 11 percent of males in America are proficient in math, reading, and writing, while only 12 percent of females are proficient. While White and Asian/Pacific Islanders are 14 and 18 percent proficient respectively, only two percent of Blacks, four percent of Hispanics, and seven percent of Native Americans are proficient. That means at an average of the population of those minority groups, only 11 percent of people are have a decent literacy level. Out of 1 million people in that group, only 110,000 people would be proficient. A shocking 41 percent of Hispanics have a below basic literacy level. While Whites and Asian/Pacific Islanders have the highest scores averaged (256 and 255), they are still below the PIAAC average. The average literacy score for Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans combined is only 230; this score is lower than that of a student still in high school (241)(U.S. Department of Education).While it’s obvious that America’s literacy rates are low, where did these low rates stem from? The low literacy rates stemmed from a mix of many factors such as government influence on the education system and overuse of standardized tests. With an increase in popularity of federal mandates and legislative policy, the U.S. government’s role in the country’s education system is not a small one. For many years, representatives have passed legislation aimed to improve education in the country, yet most of the legislation made to help ends up hurting schools the most. A lot of the time, the government will force public schools to implement mandates and policies without any resources and/or materials to help implement them. For example, the very widely know No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was initially implemented as a series of federal programs in order to achieve the goal of having every child receive the same, fair education across the country so that no child would be left behind. In the beginning, the act seemed like it would make an enormous, positive impact on schools, finally fixing the wrongs of the education system. Sadly, this didn’t happen; instead the education system became more complicated. Schools were forced to implement amounts of programs they couldn’t imagine. Many of these mandated programs were sent with almost no federal funding. If by chance a program was funded, schools would then be caught in a struggle between the federal and state government, eventually ending in costs going to the schools (Marshall). Because the schools are so tangled up in federal and state policies, there’s often no middle ground for any sort of quality education that satisfies every policy. Schools are forced to shift their focus from their students and education to satisfying every government policy put in place. An additional key contributor to low literacy rates in America is the overuse, or excessive use of standardized testing in school systems and classes. Schools in the U.S. now only teach students to take tests; rather than teaching to retain information for long durations of time, teachers only teach students enough information to pass the next test. One might ask, “Well that could mean that a student only takes a few tests per semester/year right?” Nope. Students are frequently being tested, and these tests barely contribute to their success outside of their K-12 education! One of the only reasons why schools care so much about standardized tests is because of the incentives of having high scores. Essentially, if a teacher’s class scores are high, that shows that the teacher’s doing a fantastic job teaching their students, and because they did so great, they get a reward. Many states, districts and systems still use standardized testing to evaluate if a teacher is doing there job, even though the dependency of the scores has “lessened”. One teacher, Justin Parmenter, had multiple experiences with this unjust system. A total of 52 new standardized tests were issued in just the school district of Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina! There were so many tests, that one student even wrote a paper called “Why do I have to Take a Standardized Test in Yearbook?” According to Parmenter, many of the teachers evaluated in the school he taught at, including himself, would score high scores according to the standardized tests, but actual performance of students declined(Strauss). In fact, Harvard testing expert and professor Daniel Koretz explains that standardized tests became more prominent when more people were not satisfied with American students. Because the U.S. has put more of an emphasis on standardized testing, it’s causing scores to actually go down.Tests are being used so often, it’s creating a false sense of pressure on students to raise their scores, even though there are many factors that can affect test scores. While tests used in the right way can give insight into what a person needs to improve in, they way they are being used now, to assume a person’s entirety of intelligence, isn’t correct (Strauss). So if the students know the tests mean nothing for them, and they know that it won’t count, why would they even bother paying attention in class, or trying on the tests? Because educators are pressuring students so heavily to do well on standardized tests so frequently, students aren’t motivated to learn and take tests that don’t educate them for, or contribute to their future at all. While low literacy rates are already a problem in schools, these low rates can lead to many different problems and situations. For example, in the U.S. alone, there are over 6 million vacant job openings as of July, 2017(Gillespie). That’s more than double the amount it was in 2012 (CBS)! Despite the various openings, shockingly, 6.8 million people in the U.S. are looking for jobs. While there are various other factors that go into hiring, one key factor is qualifications. CNN Money writer Patrick Gillespie writes, “Job seekers tend to lack the skills in demand….”(Gillespie). Because many U.S. citizens’ literacy levels are either sub par or below average, they aren’t qualified to earn jobs and keep not only the economy, but the country itself running! The world itself makes greater advances everyday, requiring more qualified individuals to keep schools, companies, governments, and countries running. If the U.S. can’t educate its citizens properly, sooner or later, the country will collapse. One proposed solution to raising literacy rates in the U.S. is to switch to an education system like Finland’s. According to Big Think writer Teodora Zareva, Finland’s education system has rose above the ranks in four steps: relying on more competent teachers, focusing on the importance of education in early childhood, dissolving administrative strings (getting rid of complicated policies and mandates from higher ups), and guaranteeing free education, including meals, uniforms, and school supplies, to students (Zareva). Finland’s new curriculum, the National Curriculum Framework 2016 (NCF), prioritizes “phenomenon-based” teaching, teaching that makes students apply a variety of concepts in a single class. This style prepares students for the everchanging, complex world they are about to experience. In addition to this teaching style, Finnish students also experience less stress in early childhood/early elementary stages. Instead of kids completing grueling work with only one recess/lunch break, breaks and physical activity blocks are frequently built into students’ schedules. This is done to reduce the amount of stress in a student and allow their brain to explore other areas of learning besides academics(Doyle). Finland’s success isn’t just backed by ear or writing either. Finnish students are attaining higher literacy rates than their international peers. According to Finland Today, Finland is ranked as the most literate country on the planet where close 100 percent of all its citizens are literate (Öhberg). By switching to a less stressed, critical thinking system, U.S. students would experience less pressure and feel more inclined to learn and seek out their education.Literacy rates in the U.S. can also be raised by reforming aspects of the current system now, and reforming outside forces too. First, in order to raise literacy rates and improve the government needs to send out only one funded mandate: comprehensively analyze each school’s performance and decide where the money is needed. Rather than forcing every school to comply with multiple policies and programs and legislation, the government can leave the policies and programs needed up to individual schools/districts. Although this does raise the question of how to analyze student performance, there is a solution to that too. Instead of students taking only a standardized test to determine their performance, schools should incorporate past grade reports to determine trends and statistics of students. Once the schools have analyzed their students and reported the results, they can use federal money to create programs and policies only necessary to that specific school/district; by conducting this process, educators can focus more on actual teaching than getting caught up in policies that don’t necessarily apply to their subject, class, or school. Secondly, literacy rates can be raised simply by getting rid of standardized testing and letting teachers build more relationships with their students. By building more personal relationships, students can trust their teachers more than a teacher that just gives out tests. In fact, Parmenter witnessed this first hand. In his book, he says, “As teachers began to talk with each other about their own value-added measures, I learned that my friend Laura, a teacher who inspired me through her constant innovation, her ability to build positive relationships with students, and her use of data to tailor instruction to individual needs, had received relatively low EVAAS results — the same year 100 percent of her Algebra students had passed their end-of-year exam.”(Strauss). If students can see their teacher as someone to look up to and respect, rather than someone who’s just there to get paid, they will want to do better and educate themselves; they’ll be interested in reading and writing and math. While literacy rates are a problem for the U.S. there is still hope for the country to improve! By dissolving the confusing governmental legalities involved with the education system, disposing of the excessive use of standardized tests, and building better teacher-student relationships, literacy rates in the U.S. will climb back up the charts. Whether it’s complete reform, partial reform, or a complete switch like Finland, if  the country is able to have even the slightest ounce of positive reform, it’s a step in the right direction towards brighter futures for everyone.