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Half of Adults Lack Skills, Literacy Study Finds

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WASHINGTON--Nearly half of all adult Americans cannot read, write, and calculate well enough to function fully in today's society, and people in their early 20's have poorer literacy skills than did those in a 1985 survey, according to a federal study.

The study, released last week by the Education Department, is based on lengthy interviews with more than 26,000 Americans over age 15.

The findings show that 47 percent of adults, for example, cannot calculate the difference in price between two items, use a bus schedule correctly, or explain distinctions between two types of employee benefits.

"This report is wake-up call to the sheer magnitude of illiteracy in this country and underscores literacy's strong connection to economic status,'' Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said. "It paints a picture of a society in which the vast majority of Americans do not know they don't have the skills they need to earn a living in our increasingly technological society and international marketplace.''

Conducted in 1992 by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., the National Adult Literacy Survey is the second such survey sponsored by the federal government in two decades. It probed more deeply than previous surveys by assessing how well people understand English, by asking them to demonstrate what they can do with what they know, and by including questions that require arithmetic skills. Federal officials said they hope to use it as a baseline for measuring future progress.

The questions and tasks in the survey were assigned a number value from 0 to 500 based on their degree of difficulty. The scores were grouped into five levels. Adults who scored at the highest level--about one-fifth of those surveyed--could handle such complex, challenging tasks as reading a text and summarizing two ways lawyers could challenge prospective jurors.

Those at the bottom of the scale had the rudimentary skills to identify a country in a short article. But they could not handle slightly more complex tasks, such as locating an intersection on a street map.

Immigration a Factor

Of that lowest-scoring group, which includes 40 million to 45 million Americans, one-fourth were immigrants who may have been learning English. A third were 65 or older, and 26 percent said they had physical, mental, or health conditions that kept them from fully participating in work, school, or housework.

Some members of that group, however, were also high school graduates. Among adults with high school diplomas who participated in the survey, between 16 percent and 20 percent scored at the bottom of the scale.

The researchers were surprised to find that most people whose skills were gauged to be at the two lowest levels said they could read and write English well.

Yet that group was also poorer and had lower levels of employment than any other group.

Young adults between ages 21 and 25 generally scored in the middle range on the survey. They could, on average, write a brief letter explaining an error on a credit-card bill, but they could not use information from a news article to calculate the amount of money that should go to raising a child.

That average level of literacy--about 293 on the scale--represents a decline of 11 to 14 points since 1985, when a similar survey of young adults was conducted.

The decline, however, was partly due to immigration patterns, the report says. The proportion of young Hispanic adults taking part in the survey more than doubled, from 7 percent in 1985 to 15 percent in 1992. Many of those individuals, born outside the United States, were still learning English.

However, the scores for white 21- to 25-year-olds, taken separately, also declined over the same period, while blacks in that age group scored comparably on both surveys. Researchers had no explanation for those differing trends.

Copies of "Adult Literacy in America'' are available for $12 each by writing New Orders, Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 37194, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15250-7954. The stock number is 065-000-00588-3.

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