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Information overload

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Esther Cepeda
September 19, 2011
— While last week’s announcement of the notable drop in SAT scores has set off the umpteenth debate about the efficacy of standardized tests, the results foretell the next stage in our never-ending march toward the intellectual apocalypse.

The College Board’s data showed that the 2011 high school graduating class posted the lowest ever reading scores since it started keeping track of individual classes in 1972—down to 497 on a 200-to-800 point scale. Writing scores were down to 489, two points lower than last year, and have declined every year since writing was first measured in 2006.


Officials at the College Board explained the deterioration by pointing to such factors as the increased academic diversity of its test takers compared to past years, but I blame the Internet.


As much as 24-hour on-demand information has edified the lives of adults who can remember a time when if you didn’t own a set of encyclopedias, you were left behind, being wired has drawbacks for the young.


Back in 2004, one of my education professors held up her cellphone and predicted that the Internet would change how we teach and what learning standards would look like because, with information archived and searchable, students would no longer need to be burdened with memorizing and retaining facts.


She was obviously a visionary. Conventional wisdom says the Internet became mainstream in the late 1990s when commercial networks became widely available. That means today’s middle-schoolers have never lived in a world where it was necessary to know a string of facts—for instance, the progression of U.S. presidents—because those lists are only an instant, increasingly handheld, search away.


Today’s students believe—ask them, they’ll be happy to tell you—that facts are always available and therefore don’t need to be memorized, much less truly internalized. When students take high-stakes tests designed to capture their ability to interpret readings and write meaningful essays without an Internet connection, they flop.


Reading comprehension requires a body of background knowledge—vocabulary, a rudimentary sense of history—and the ability to question what has been read. This combination synthesizes information into meaning. Those same skills, in addition to the ability to communicate concisely, set the foundation for writing. But students are having difficulty gaining those skills after a short lifetime of quickly scanning texts for boldfaced words, doing the majority of their reading on cellphones, and executing instant Internet searches that very directly and accurately answer even poorly worded misspelled questions.


Though the Internet has changed the world for the better in innumerable ways, the effects of young people’s habit of ceding their knowledge to the almighty search engine are starting to manifest themselves. And this revolution in how children “learn” isn’t being addressed by schools or through changes in teaching methods.


Watch for reading and writing scores to continue declining as the acquisition of boring, old, easy-to-find facts goes the way of cursive writing, that other relic of a bygone age.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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