United States 2003 National Adult Literacy Survey released

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Sunday, December 25, 2005

Preliminary results from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), released 15 December 2005 by the US National Center for Education Statistics, indicate gains and losses in literacy among minority adults between 1992 and 2003.

The nationally representative study among US adults age 16 and older found the over-all average prose and document literacy remained relatively unchanged, but quantitative literacy improved 8 points (on a scale of 500.) Results among minorities were mixed, with White and Asian/Pacific Islander minorities scoring significantly higher than Hispanic or Black ethnicities; Hispanic subjects in particular had sharp decreases in prose and document literacy (-9% and -8%, respectively) and quantitative illiteracy remained unchanged with 50% of subjects scoring at less than basic literacy levels.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy is the most comprehensive measure of adult literacy in the USA. The 2003 NAAL, with 19 000 participants, was conducted by the Educational Testing Service, a non-governmental organization which charges for its services.

Understanding the results

The survey measured three types of literacy:

Prose Literacy
The knowledge and skills needed to perform prose tasks (i.e., to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts).
Document Literacy
The knowledge and skills needed to perform document tasks (i.e., to search, comprehend, and use information from noncontinuous texts in various formats).
Quantitative Literacy
The knowledge and skills needed to perform quantitative tasks (i.e., to identify and perform computations, either alone or sequentially, using numbers embedded in printed materials).

In each of these types of literacy the study categorized the subjects into four classes: below basic literacy, basic literacy, intermediate literacy, and proficient literacy. The break down of literacy was performed across a range of variables, such as ethnicity, gender, age, first language, education, and employment status.

Selected results

Some of the results were surprising, while others reflect continuing trends in the population.

High proficiency in reading continued to decline between 1992 and 2003 among White subjects, as well as among Hispanics—both down 1%—while Black subjects maintained their level and Asian/Pacific Islanders increased 3%. Across the ethnicities education level was a greater indicator of reading proficiently with 4.5% of high (secondary) school graduates reading at this level compared with 29% of college graduates and 36% of subjects in graduate studies/degrees.

An important difference between the 2003 survey and the 1992 survey was both in the make-up of the sample and in the inclusion of subjects who were unable to communicate in English or Spanish with the researchers. By ethnicity, the percentage of Black participants remained largely the same while the percentage of Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islanders grew significantly and the percentage of White participants was reduced. The instructions were made available in English and Spanish, although all testing material was exclusively in English, and 3% of participants who were unable to answer basic literacy screening questions took an alternative assessment. Even so, 2% of the subject group were unable to communicate with researchers at all in English or Spanish (this was down from 3% in 1992.)

Why are the tests carried out?

According to the National Centre for Education Statistics, the tests are carried out to measure America's progress in the area of adult literacy. The results are made available to the general public, but are of most interest to researchers, practitioners and policymakers.

Sources

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