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Americans Land in Middle of International Literacy Scale

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The first international survey of adult literacy shows that Americans' reading skills--as poor as they may be--are on par with those of citizens of some of the world's other richest nations.

Released last week in Washington and in Paris, the study is drawn from interviews and testing of 23,000 people between the ages of 16 and 65 in seven countries: the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland.

The report rejects the popular notion that literacy can be narrowly defined as the ability to read and write in favor of what Jeanne E. Griffith, the acting commissioner of education statistics for the Department of Education, called "a new way of thinking about literacy." Taking a cue from the United States' groundbreaking 1992 national literacy survey, the authors define literacy as a spectrum of skills that ranges from interpreting newspaper editorials to analyzing mathematics-based charts and graphs.

Using a five-point scale, the researchers evaluated participants separately on three types of literacy: prose literacy, which is the ability to understand text; document literacy, or the ability to decipher tables, schedules, and maps; and quantitative literacy, the kinds of arithmetic abilities used in everyday reading situations.

The survey was conducted by Statistics Canada, which is a federal agency in Canada; the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international policy group made up of industrial countries; the Education Department's National Center on Education Statistics; and study teams sponsored by the cooperating countries.

Differing Patterns

In all of the countries, on all three dimensions of literacy, roughly one-fifth of the adults scored at the most basic levels of literacy--a one or two on the scale. Those adults could not, for example, look at a bus schedule and figure out the last bus they could take home or determine how to fit a bicycle by reading the owner's manual.

Beyond that, however, the countries varied greatly in the way their scores were distributed along the continuum of literacy achievement. The United States and Canada, for example, were unusual among the nations surveyed in that sizable proportions of the population scored at both the high and the low ends of the scale. In both countries, about one-fifth or more of those surveyed scored at levels four and five. That meant they could, for example, look at a nutritional analysis of a Big Mac sandwich and determine what percentage of calories came from fat, among other tasks.

Sweden, which appears to have the most literate population of any of the nations studied, had the greatest proportions of people at the top three levels of the scale.

The Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany, on the other hand, had more of their populations achieving in the middle range. Citizens in Poland were clustered on the low end of the scale, but not by much more than the other nations studied.

Germans scored high in terms of quantitative literacy but low in their ability to comprehend texts.

`We Are Competitive'

"This adult-literacy survey shows that overall, we are on par with many of our international competitors, and in some instances we do better," said Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "This shows that many Americans have the knowledge and skills to compete and succeed in the global economy."

Mr. Riley's optimistic characterization of the data contrasted sharply with the dismal picture he painted two years ago of the national literacy survey, which used similar methodology and put Americans' reading skills at virtually the same levels as the new international study. Both reports suggested that nearly half of all Americans were scoring at the two lowest levels of literacy. (See Education Week, Sept. 15, 1993.)

At the time, Mr. Riley called that report a "wake-up call to the sheer magnitude of illiteracy in this country."

When asked last week about the differing characterizations, he said he felt "comfortable in saying we are competitive in an international sense." But he noted that there was room for improvement.

The new report found, for example, that although strong literacy skills were associated with higher levels of schooling, even some well-educated people were barely literate by the study's definition.

What the report lacks are more in-depth analyses to explain the country-to-country variances, Ms. Griffith said, adding that more detailed reports on the project are in the works.

For More Information:

Single copies of the international adult-literacy report are available for $40 each, while supplies last, from the National Library of Education at (800) 424-1616, Statistics Canada at (800) 267-6677, and the OECD at (202) 785-6323.

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