Reading this editorial is a test, of sorts

If you have a college degree, there's no guarantee you can follow this editorial. That's because the number of graduates proficient in English fell from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003. Schools of higher education need to answer for this drop in "prose literacy."

That sharp decline, reported in a survey by the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, came as a shock to educators last month. Prose literacy, the kind that allows someone to understand editorials such as this one, decreased among adults at every level of education. But the most startling decline was for those adults with college or post-graduate degrees. (Among those with graduate work or an advanced degree, proficiency in prose literacy fell from 51 percent to 41 percent.)

These discouraging statistics come at a time of a crushing need for better educated workers who can help keep the US competitive in a supercharged global economy.

They also come at a critical time for colleges and universities. Congress is debating how to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, with some lawmakers asking if the $80 billion in US funds given to colleges and to many of their 17 million students is money well spent. And a 19-member national panel, set up by the secretary of education and known as the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, is looking seriously at recommending that colleges accepting federal money be held accountable for their educational results.

The panel's recommendations, due by Aug. 1, could echo the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act that required standardized testing for earlier grades in public schools. It's headed by Charles Miller, a former chairman of the University of Texas System's board of regents who was instrumental in bringing such testing to the state's public colleges and in shaping the standardized testing at Texas's K-12 public schools which became the model for the federal law.

The US system of higher education is the best in the world, and regulating it should not be done lightly, especially because the causes for these literacy declines may be quite fixable: Many public universities have lowered their standards in accepting students, and a huge influx of Latino immigrants in the 1990s led to many more nonnative English speakers in schools.

The ranking of colleges, such as those done yearly by US News and World Report, has already put a spotlight on weaknesses in higher education. (US News may now want to add literacy rates to its criteria.) But federal and state taxpayers, too, should be entitled to know which colleges efficiently and effectively use government aid to achieve the best results.

That doesn't mean Washington should tell schools that now accept federal money how to teach. But it can at least put money into institutions that achieve basic benchmarks in the quality of graduates produced. Schools that object can decline federal money.

If you've read this far, and formed your own opinion on this issue, congratulations. The education system worked for you.

And what of those who failed in trying to read this editorial? The rest of us have a duty to demand more accountability from taxpayer-supported schools of higher learning.

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