New Study Raises Concerns About Adult Literacy

By Lynn Olson — October 01, 1986 8 min read

Many Said Unable To Cope In Technological Society

Six percent of people in their early 20’s read below the 4th-grade level, the federally funded study found, and 5 percent cannot perform such “routine or uncomplicated tasks” as filling out a job application or totaling two entries on a bank-deposit slip.

Moreover the study of 3,600 adults ages 21 to 25 reported that performance plummeted as tasks became more difficult. Some 91 percent of those surveyed, for example, could not find and paraphrase an unfamiliar theme in a short poem. And 90 percent were unable to use unit pricing to choose the best buy in a grocery store.

''People are not walking around bumping into walls because they can’t read,” said Irwin S. Kirsch, the study’s project director. ''The question is whether people with only moderate literacy skills have the flexibility to shift into new environments.”

The findings have major implications for the nation’s public schools, according to Archie E. Lapointe, executive director of NAEP. He cited the need to expand dropout-prevention programs, place greater emphasis on higher-order thinking skills, and increase the availability of preschool and early- intervention programs for children whose parents are poorly educated.

The study found that young adults who dropped out of high school had far greater difficulty performing various literacy tasks than did their peers who graduated

Although 72 percent of all young adults could write a letter explaining an error on a bill, for example, only 23 percent of those with eight years or less of schooling could do so. And only 41 percent of those with some high-school experience succeeded at this “moderate” literacy task.

“It has been argued that many, if not mo t, of society’s managerial, professional and technical service-sector jobs will require participation in some post-I secondary program,” Mr. Lapointe said. “This argument raises the I question of whether or not individuals with more limited literacy skills will qualify for or benefit from such education and training.”

‘Scare Figures’

In general, however, “the results are much better than expected,” according to Gregory Anrig, president of the Educational Testing Service, which conducted the study.

Mr. Anrig described previous estimates of adult illiteracy in America as “scare figures.”

Education experts have had difficulty determining the number of illiterate or semi-literate adults in the United States. A study released in April by the Education Department, for example, estimated that - nearly 13 percent of all American adults-or between 17 million and 21 million people-were illiterate.

An earlier department estimate in 1983 stated that 23 million adults were “functionally” illiterate and that 35 million more were semi-literate.

By extrapolating the most recent findings across the full age range of adults, about 10 million are reading below the 4th-grade level, concluded Thomas G. Sticht, a researcher with Applied Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Inc., in San Diego, in the foreword to the NAEP report.

The problem is not that people cannot read at all, said Mr. Anrig, but that they cannot read well enough. U. S. education, he said, must go beyond “simple shooting for the bottom line.”

“We need to work for higher levels of performance than typically is accounted for in state minimum-competency standards,” he said.

Minority Gap

One of the most serious problems the study found is the gap between minority and white literacy levels.

Black young adults performed significantly below white young adults, with the differences widening as the tasks became more difficult. Hispanics performed about midway between the two groups.

The study found that 18 percent of black young adults read below the 4th-grade level, compared with 4 percent of whites and 8 percent of Hispanics. The findings are consistent with earlier NAEP data, Mr. Kirsch said.

The study also found a strong relationship between young adults’ literacy skills and their parents’ level of education. Mr. Lapointe cautioned that illiteracy could pass from one generation to the next unless schools take steps to intervene early with children whose parents have low literacy levels.

No One Number

A $2-million grant from the Education Department paid for the two-year study, “Literacy: Profiles of America’s Young Adults.”

The survey marks the first time that NAEP has measured the performance of a non-school-age population. The congressionally mandated research project, now contracted to E.T.S., collects data on the academic achievement of young Americans.

Unlike most studies of its kind, the report did not rate literacy on a single scale and come up with a number above or below which people were considered “literate” or “illiterate.”

Instead, it measured people’s performance on more than 100 “everyday” tasks reflecting three kinds of literacy and varying degrees of difficulty:

  • Prose literacy, or the ability to understand and use information from news stories, poems, and other narratives.
  • Document literacy, or the ability to locate and use information contained in job applications, payroll forms, maps, tables, charts, and indexes.
  • Quantitative literacy, or the ability to do arithmetic based on printed information, such as figuring out a tip or completing an order form.
  • The difficulty of the tasks and the performance of adults on each kind of literacy scale were rated from a low of 0 to a high of 500.

    Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said Americans have in the past “oversimplified” the concept of literacy. This study, he noted, “rejects that facile approach. It rightly points out that literacy is multifaceted and multidimensional.”

    “Although a person might be capable of filling out a job application, he might not be able to balance a checkbook,” he continued. “There are different types of literacy and many degrees of literacy. No one standard of literacy is sufficient for all people in all circumstances.”

    Mr. Kirsch said the study, which found only a modest correlation between the three kinds of literacy, also suggests a need to reshape the school curriculum so that it emphasizes more than one kind of literacy.

    “Are we satisfied with teaching reading as a generic skill that focuses basically on narrative texts,” he asked, “or should we pay more attention to other materials? Information arrayed graphically is not the same as being able to understand a narrative. We shouldn’t expect that there will be this general kind of transferability.

    Grade-Level Comparison

    The study also rated participants using multiple-choice items from a reading assessment of school-age children conducted by NAEP in 1983- 84.

    It found that about 94 percent of young adults read at or above the level of the average 4th grader. Roughly 80 percent read as well as or better than the average 8th grader, and 62 percent as well as or better than the typical 11th grader.

    The data also show a “striking increase” in the percentage of young adults achieving at the highest levels of reading comprehension, compared with in-school 17 -year-olds, the report states.

    More than half of young adults were estimated to have “adept” reading skills, compared with 39 percent of 17-year-olds. Almost 21 percent were estimated to have “advanced” reading skills, compared with 5 percent of 17 -year-olds.

    “Progress is being made somewhere between the ages of 17 and 25, and there’s at least reason to hope that some of it’s being made in our colleges and universities,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary for the Education Department’s office of educational research and improvement.

    But he noted that the “adept” level is still only that needed for a “fairly serious senior-high-school textbook to be fully understood.”

    And Secretary Bennett said even among college-educated young adults, almost 19 percent were unable to perform such tasks as following directions to travel from one location to another with the aid of a map.

    “For the $263 billion America spent on education last year,” he said, “we should do better than this.”

    Oral Skills

    The NAEP report comes in the midst of a nationwide media campaign, organized by the Public Broadcasting Service and the ABC television network, to combat adult illiteracy. (See box on this page.)

    Countering a common public perception, however, the study found that there were not “vast numbers of people with well-developed oral skills who are unable to use written or printed language,” Mr. Lapointe said.

    About 2 percent of the young adults in the survey-including half who spoke a language other than English- were judged to have such limited literacy skills that they were not given the written assessment.

    The 1 percent who spoke English but who did not take the written exam responded instead to a series of oral-language tasks. Their performance on these tasks was so low that NAEP researchers concluded that they may have an oral-language problem as well as a problem with printed information.

    On the basis of these findings, Mr. Sticht suggested that adult-literacy programs for the “least literate in the nation” may require much more time per person to be successful than was previously assumed

    Mr. Anrig pointed out, however, that too many literacy programs assume the target population “cannot read or write at all.” NAEP’s conclusion that most adults have problems with mid-level literacy skills-and not with basic skills-suggests that the curricula and teaching methods in these programs may be inappropriate for many clients, he said.

    Copies of the 68-page report are available for $12.50 each, plus $1.50 for shipping and handling, from NAEP, CN 6710, Princeton, N.J. 08541- 6710, or by calling (BOO) 223-{)267. A final report, including full technical documentation, can be ordered for the same price

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    A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1986 edition of Education Week as New Study Raises Concerns About Adult Literacy