Federal Report Finds Mixed Results on Adult Literacy

By Sean Cavanagh — December 15, 2005 3 min read

Adult literacy has remained virtually unchanged over the past decade, concludes a new nationwide report, which also found that high school graduates’ ability to interpret certain types of written materials actually fell over that time.

The study, “National Assessment of Adult Literacy,” released here Dec. 15, found that literacy remained mostly stagnant in two categories measuring the ability to understand basic literature and documents. But the report also found an increased ability among those 16 and older to perform basic math and computation found in written materials.

The study, administered by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, is a follow-up to a similar study conducted 10 years ago.

Federal officials, in announcing the results at a news conference at the Education Department, cautioned against drawing overly broad conclusions from the data, noting that the trends were influenced by demographic changes, especially in immigration, as well as in differences between how the two different studies were conducted.

Yet they also expressed surprise and disappointment over the declines in literacy among two populations they would have expected to have relatively strong reading and comprehension skills: high school and college graduates.

From 1992 to 2003, the dates when the two studies were conducted, the “prose” literacy among high school graduates, or their basic ability to comprehend and use written information, fell from a score of 268 to 262—a statistically significant drop, on a scale of 0 to 500. Those high school graduates’ results also fell in a separate category, the ability to make sense of documents, from 261 to 258. Their “quantitative” literacy, or ability to perform computations based on written materials, rose from a score of 267 to 269. The scores from the latter two categories were not statistically significant.

“Somehow, the value of formal education, in terms of the value [that is] added, is declining,” Mark Schneider, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said in an interview.

Both Mr. Schneider and Grover J. Whitehurst, the director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences, which oversees NCES, also noted that the literacy of college graduates fell in all three literacy categories, with two of those drops being statistically significant.

“There is a danger that the standards one expects of a higher education system are not maintained,” Mr. Whitehurst said at the event.

The literacy study was conducted among a nationwide sample of 19,000 adults, defined as people ages 16 and older, from backgrounds ranging from those still enrolled in school, to members of the workforce, to those in prison. The overall quantitative literacy score increased from 275 to 283, a statistically significant jump; prose literacy fell from 276 to 275; and document literacy remained the same, at 271.

Read Better, Earn More

The economic benefits of literacy for society—and the payoff for individuals—is clear, federal officials noted. Those who scored at a “proficient” literacy level averaged more than twice the amount of weekly income—$975—in 2003 than those who scored at a “below basic” level, the data showed.

“If you want to earn $28,000 more a year—read,” Mr. Whitehurst said at the press conference.

Various minority groups showed broad fluctuation in their literacy scores. African-American adult literacy increased by statistically significant margins in all three categories, a trend that federal officials attributed in part to rising educational attainment in K-12 education. By contrast, literacy among Hispanics dropped in two of the three categories, also in a statistically significant way.

Robert Wedgeworth, the president and CEO of ProLiteracy Worldwide, a nonprofit advocacy group in Syracuse, N.Y., said the changes in Hispanic results were not surprising, because studies have shown that more Latino immigrants are arriving with increasingly diverse educational backgrounds at older ages, and with less formal schooling.

“We are underestimating the impact of those who are foreign-born,” Mr. Wedgeworth said.


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