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Dumb and Dumber, Reversing the Trend

By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence

WASHINGTON, D.C. (2/24/00)- One thing many teachers and students would agree upon, textbooks are not as good as they could be. The problem, according to new study presented at at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, might be traced to the early grades.

Donald P. Hayes, Cornell professor of sociology emeritus, developed a system called LEX (text accessibility/lexical difficulty) to rate the level of reading difficulty of textbooks. His research indicates a disturbing trend traceable to the period following World War II, when textbook publishers began "dumbing down" their offering in all subjects in the elementary, middle and high school grades. As a result of creating less challenging reading materials in subjects such as social studies and history, students are ill prepared to take on the rigors of language required to learn and understand scientific materials. Indeed, he notes that many American students shun high school science for "easier" subjects, because of this trend.

"After World War II, we simplified books for history, English and other nonscience subjects by shortening the sentences and avoiding rare, unfamiliar words that might challenge readers to learn new concepts. The rarer the word, the more specific the concept, Hayes noted..

"The students are not prepared for science texts with all the domain-specific words, the equations and the longer sentences. There is a gulf between the two bodies of work in the schools, and the gulf isn't getting smaller," Hayes said. Besides becoming virtual 'science illiterates', these undereducated students also become vulnerable to pseudoscience.

Hayes is not suggesting that science textbooks be simplified. Rather he proposes that students be exposed to more challenging books of all kinds before they reach high school. He is campaigning for a large-scale experiment in textbook purchasing to test his proposition. He proposes an experiment for large school districts that are planning to replace outdated, nonscience textbooks. Half the students the first year of the experiment would receive new, more difficult books with rarer words in more complex sentence structures, while the other half would continue to use the old, oversimplified books. Subsequent testing after the first year should find the students who read more challenging books to be among the top scorers for their grade levels. In the later school years, this should translate into higher SAT scores, Hayes predicts.

"As science becomes more sophisticated, the language of science inevitably becomes more specific," Hayes said. "Many American students are not prepared for the level of difficulty that they will encounter in science texts. They struggle through the required science courses -- not learning as much as they could -- and only the most able students continue in science. The drop-outs are not getting as much science as students in other developed countries. This increases their vulnerability to weird pseudoscience and anti-science."

The Cornell scientist used his LEX to evaluate schoolbooks used in the United States from the 1700s to the present time. He observed a steady trend in oversimplification beginning in American schools after World War II. He believes this coincides with declines in SAT (standardized admissions test) verbal scores among students who are not being challenged by appropriately difficult reading materials.


LEX (text accessibility/lexical difficulty)
ratings of selected publications and transcripts
Nature +34.7
New Scientist +7.2
Time +1.6
Newspapers U.S. and U.K. 0
Ranger Rick (science for children) -18.4
Television (primetime shows) -36.4
Farmer talking to dairy cows -56.0
Source: Donald P. Hayes, Department of Sociology, Cornell University

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