FleschKincaid Test: Is Congress Getting Dumber?

A few years back, the Sunlight Foundation found that our public servants in Congress were “speakin’ real easy-like.” Flesch-Kincaid test data showed that members of Congress were speaking at almost a full grade level lower than they had seven years prior.

The Foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that pushes for more transparency in government, hence the word “sunlight” in its name.

In 2012, the organization analyzed congressional speeches, all of which are transcribed and entered into the congressional record. Using the Flesch-Kincaid test, the study’s authors were able to assign a grade level to every member of Congress.

Is Congress getting dumber? If we judge our legislators by the Flesch-Kincaid test, then yes. In 2012, representatives and senators gave speeches that ranked about one grade level lower than speeches they gave in 2005.

Flesch-Kincaid Test: The Barometer of Readability

The Flesch-Kincaid test measures readability. It assigns a higher grade level to longer words and longer sentences and a lower grade level to shorter words and shorter sentences.

For example, the average article from the Journal of the American Medical Association is harder to read than Green Eggs and Ham.

Tip: Use Microsoft Word’s readability statistics to figure out whether what your writing is easy or hard for the average person to read.

In 2005, members of Congress spoke at an 11th-grade level (11.5). In 2012, they were speaking at a 10th-grade level (10.6). I haven’t seen more recent data, but if I do, I’ll update this page.

former U.S. rep John "Mick" Mulvaney, 8th-grade speaking level

Mulvaney at the peak (low point?) of his congressional speaking career.

Because Flesch-Kincaid is a readability test, these numbers mean that the average high school junior in 2005 and the average high school sophomore in 2012 could understand congressional speeches.

So are members of Congress actually less capable with words than they used to be? Or are they making their speeches easier on purpose to help their listeners?

In 2012, the Congressman with the highest speaking level (16.01) was Daniel Lundgren, a Republican from California. He’s no longer in Congress.

The Congressman with the lowest speaking level (7.95) was John “Mick” Mulvaney, a Republican from South Carolina.

You may not have known who Mulvaney was in 2012, but you might know him now. He’s the current director of the Office of Management and Budget and the same guy who wants to cut meal programs for poor kids and the elderly.

Mick Mulvaney has the unlucky distinction of speaking at a sub-8th-grade level and wanting to let the hungry go hungrier. (I couldn’t find any data on correlations between using “easy” speech and having a cold, black heart.)

Maybe Congress Isn’t Dumb

It’s easy to equate a high score with “smart” and a low score with “dumb.”

But it’s not as simple as that. The numbers are just one measure of linguistic complexity.

Gosh, I guess I should be disappointed that I’m not using my higher education to better use, but, oh well. I hope people don’t take it as a substitute for lack of intellect, but small words can be just as powerful as big words sometimes.

—Mick Mulvaney, the U.S. rep with the lowest Flesch-Kincaid test score

As champions of plain language know, simple phrasing can make it easier for listeners or readers to digest a given message.

Take President Obama, for example. While many think of him a gifted speaker, his 2012 State of the Union address was at an 8th-grade level.

For more on what Flesch-Kincaid means for your inbound marketing efforts, see this post on the Yoast SEO plugin. It uses the Flesch Reading Ease test to calculate how easy your content is to read.

Do you write online content? Then read about good word choice in your blog and follow these 8 steps to create great web content.


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