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Why Johnnies Around the World Can’t Read

A classroom in Monrovia, Liberia
A classroom in Monrovia, LiberiaPhotograph by Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images

The University of Liberia last week issued the results of its entrance examination, which tests students on the basis of what they should have learned from their high school curriculum in English and math. Places at the university were hotly contested—25,000 people paid the $25 fee to take the test. For the first time, the exam was implemented independently, to reduce the risk of favoritism and corruption. The results made Harvard’s admissions ratio (where 1 in 17 applicants is accepted) look like that of a commuter school: Every single applicant was rejected on the basis of a failing exam grade.

Under pressure from Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the university was forced to regrade on a curve and let in the top 1,800 scorers. But the president has admitted the country’s schools are struggling. And, sadly, Liberia’s woes are hardly unique. Around the developing world, hundreds of millions of students are learning only a fraction of what the syllabuses suggest they should, and often they leave school without even a basic grasp of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Unaddressed, the global learning challenge is likely to become a serious drag on worldwide growth.