Adult Literacy Population Assessments – How Do Adults Rank in Literacy?

Childhood literacy is the requisite for having an adult population with high literacy skills. While children and adolescents have their literacy skills measured in school, the literacy skills of the adult population are measured by large surveys called adult literacy population assessments. These surveys commonly measure the literacy and competency levels of adults ranging from 16-65 years of age.

In the United States as well in as in most other developed countries, there have been multiple adult literacy population assessments done since the 1990s. The most significant of these tests include the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) taken from 1994 to 1998, the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL) in 2003, and the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) in 2012

The Hard Truth

Although each of these assessments differs somewhat in methodology, there is one common conclusion that stands out among the data. A shocking 52% of the adult population living in the U.S. performs at a literacy Level of 2 or poorer. Meaning that more than half of the total adult population in this country cannot identify, interpret, or evaluate meaning from texts of multiple pages or make inferences from larger chunks of text. To put a number on it, that is more than a staggering 95,709,000 million people in the U.S. that struggle with basic literacy skills. This is why it is so important that organizations like The Literacy Project exist; enacting their mission to end illiteracy at the second-grade level helps to improve the state of literacy in our country’s adult population. 

What Was Measured

The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL), and the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) each measured data pertaining to different core literacy categories. These were called literacy domains and were represented by the following terms: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy.  

Prose literacy was defined as having “the knowledge and skills needed to understand and use information from texts including editorials, news stories, poems, and fiction”. While document literacy was defined as having the “knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in various formats, including job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and graphics.” 

Finally, quantitative literacy was defined as having the “knowledge and skills required to apply arithmetic operations, either alone or sequentially, to numbers embedded in printed materials, such as balancing a checkbook, calculating a tip, completing an order form, or determining the amount of interest on a loan from an advertisement.”

In addition to the above common domains, the PIAAC assessment chose to collect data on one other supplemental domain: problem-solving in technology-rich environments. This additional domain was added to specifically provide information on problem-solving and was scored by the individual’s ability to  “[use] digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks”.

The Findings

These domains paint a picture of the overall literacy skills belonging to the U.S. adult population and give valuable insight into how most adults interact with society. The PIAAC survey was able to discern that the majority of adults (52%) living in the United States scored below a Level 2 on the prose and document domains while only 12% scored at the highest level of proficiency Level 4/5.

On the quantitative scale, a staggering 64% of adults scored a Level 2 or below while only a small 9% scored at the highest Level 4/5. Thus revealing that more than half of the adults in the United States cannot interpret and find meaning in complex texts, are unable to carry out basic math, and cannot understand basic graphs and tables. 

Childhood Literacy Matters Now More Than Ever

Childhood literacy leads to adolescent literacy. This bleeds over into a more educated adult population with high levels of literacy skills. A good foundation of literacy skills is drastically important and that foundation is laid during an individual’s early childhood. The most critical time in a child’s literacy journey takes place at the second-grade level. If a child is allowed to progress beyond this critical point without a strong foundation of basic literacy skills, it becomes notoriously difficult to make up progress and can lead to problems with literacy and behavior in adulthood.

It is monumental to the success of our nation and our democracy that we work toward a decrease in the number of adults who have poor literacy skills. It is vital because not only does this affect domestic and international political decision making, it also affects how this great country is perceived globally. These surveys included data from over 20 countries and the results were quite clear, the United States cannot compete when it comes to literacy levels. In fact, the United States is continually ranked below the PIAAC international average in all domains including literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments. Top countries and regions include Japan, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. Remember, literacy starts with our children.

Support for The Literacy Project will not only make a difference in the lives of our most vulnerable children, but it will also make a difference on a global scale. 

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