New Report on Adult Literacy Levels, First Since 1992, Shows Need for High School Reform
Significant improvement in African American literacy; overall math skills rise
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December 15, 2005
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Helping Adults Become Literate

Washington, D.C. — American adults can read a newspaper or magazine about as well as they could a decade ago, but have made significant strides in performing literacy tasks that involve computation, according to the first national study of adult literacy since 1992.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), released today by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), found little change between 1992 and 2003 in adults' ability to read and understand sentences and paragraphs or to understand documents such as job applications.

"One adult unable to read is one too many in America," said U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who today announced plans to coordinate adult education efforts in 2006 across multiple federal agencies. "We must take a comprehensive and preventive approach, beginning with elementary schools and with special emphasis in our high schools. We must focus resources toward proven, research-based methods to ensure that all adults have the necessary literacy skills to be successful."

African Americans scored higher in 2003 than in 1992 in all three categories, increasing 16 points in quantitative, eight points in document and six points in prose literacy. Overall, adults have improved in document and quantitative literacy with a smaller percentage of adults in 2003 in the Below Basic category compared to 1992. Whites, African Americans and Asian/Pacific Islanders have improved in all three measures of literacy with a smaller percentage in 2003 in the Below Basic category compared to 1992.

Hispanic adults showed a decrease in scores for both prose and document literacy and a higher percentage in the Below Basic category. The report also showed that five percent of U.S. adults, about 11 million people, were termed "nonliterate" in English, meaning interviewers could not communicate with them or that they were unable to answer a minimum number of questions.

NAAL in 2003 assessed a nationally representative sample of more than 19,000 Americans age 16 and older, most in their homes and some in prisons. NCES, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, conducted the assessment in both 1992 and 2003.

NAAL uses three categories to define English-language literacy: prose, document and quantitative. Prose literacy includes the skills needed to understand continuous text, such as newspaper articles. Document literacy is the ability to understand the content and structure of documents such as prescription drug labels. Quantitative literacy involves using numbers in text, such as computing and comparing the cost per ounce of food items.

NAAL reports literacy in each category using a 0-500 scale score. Scores are then grouped in four literacy levels: Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate and Proficient. Below Basic is the lowest level and indicates having "no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills." Those who can perform "complex and challenging" tasks are considered at the Proficient level.

The report, A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st Century, analyzed literacy results based on a variety of factors, including race/ethnicity, gender, age, and level of educational attainment. A companion report, Key Concepts and Features of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, describes the assessment's key features and major data types. It was also released today.

Other report highlights:

  • White adults' scores were up nine points in quantitative, but were unchanged in prose and document literacy.
  • Hispanic adults' scores declined in prose and document literacy 18 points and 14 points, respectively, but were unchanged in quantitative literacy.
  • Asian/Pacific Islanders' scores increased 16 points in prose literacy, but were unchanged in document and quantitative literacy.
  • Among those who spoke only Spanish before starting school, scores were down 17 points in prose and document literacy between 1992 and 2003.

To put its findings in perspective, NAAL also reported on U.S. population changes between 1992 and 2003. During the decade, the percentage of white adults decreased from 77 to 70 percent, while the percentage of Hispanic adults increased from eight to 12 percent. The percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander adults doubled (to 4 percent). The percentage of adults who spoke only English before starting school decreased from 86 to 81 percent.

To view the reports and for more information, visit



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Last Modified: 12/15/2005