How Literate are Americans?

, George C. Leef, 2 Comments

Late in 2005, government officials in the National Center for Education Statistics released the results of the most recent study done by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy(NAAL). The study finds that the already weak literacy of American adults – including college graduates – has declined since the last assessment was done in 1992.

More than 19,700 people participated in the study, which was conducted between May 2003 and February 2004. The tasks involved three kinds of questions – to assess prose literacy, to assess document literacy, and to assess quantitative literacy.

The prose literacy questions were designed to see how well the individual could perform prose tasks such as searching for and comprehending information contained in written material – for example, describing what a poem is about. Document literacy questions were designed to see how well the individual could understand documents – for example, finding what time a certain bus arrives at its destination. Quantative questions were designed to see how well the individual could perform mathematical tasks such as calculating the cost per ounce of a brand of peanut butter.

Four levels of achievement were established: below basic, basic, intermediate, and proficient. Each exam had a possible 500 points. To make it to “basic,” an individual needed to score about 42 percent in prose and document, and 47 percent in quantitative. To achieve “intermediate” literacy, an individual needed to score barely over 50 percent in prose and document, 58 percent in quantitative. And to achieve the “proficient” level, an individual needed to score about 68 percent in prose and document, 70 percent in quantitative. The standards, clearly, are not set at a very high level.

So how well to Americans do? For all our vaunted dedication to excellence in education, when it comes to literacy – our crucial tool for dealing with most of life’s challenges – Americans are surprisingly weak.

Consider high school graduates first. According to the data, 13 percent of high school graduates are “below basic” in prose skills, up from 11 percent in 1992. That it’s possible to graduate from high school with “no more than the most simple” literacy skills is shocking proof of the weak standards that prevail in many schools. The survey also found that 39 percent of high school grads are only at “basic” in prose, up from 37 percent in 1992; “intermediate” is reached by 44 percent (down from 48 percent in 1992) and only four percent are “proficient” (down from five percent).

Looking at document literacy for high school grads, the numbers are not much different, although somewhat more reach the intermediate level (52 percent). Only five percent have achieved proficiency.

With quantitative literacy, things get worse, with 24 percent “below basic” (although it was 26 percent in 1992); 42 percent are only at “basic,” 29 percent manage “intermediate” and just five percent are proficient.

How much difference does a college education make in literacy? It makes some difference, but less than one would suppose.

In prose literacy, three percent of college graduates fall into the “below basic” category, up from two percent in 1992. Compare that with the high school figures. Most of the 13 percent of high school graduates who are “below basic” don’t even try to get into college, but we see that some of them enroll in college and manage to get (“earn” seems like the wrong word here) degrees without improving their woeful reading ability. In document and quantitative literacy, the college graduate percentages for “below basic” are two percent and four percent respectively.

The conclusion is obvious: some colleges and universities have such low academic standards that students who enter with feeble skills can make it through to graduation without improving them.

At the other end of the scale – proficiency – we see that whereas only four percent of high school graduates achieve that level in prose (and only five percent for document and quantitative), among college graduates, 31 percent achieve proficiency in prose and quantitative literacy and 25 percent in document. However, both prose and document literacy registered substantial declines compared with the 1992 data, which were 40 percent and 37 percent respectively.

Two conclusions appear warranted from that. First, a college education does improve literacy for a lot of students, but second, it isn’t doing so as much as it used to.

Finally, the fact that such relatively small percentages of college graduates reach the “proficient” level is depressing. Our whole educational system consumes a tremendous amount of time and money and achieves at best mediocre results.

That’s probably because most schools don’t bear the cost of their mistakes. Their students do.

George Leef is the executive director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, on whose web site this column originally appeared.