Improving literacy

Last week, the Department of Education released the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy:

Results showed that the average quantitative literacy scores of adults increased 8 points between 1992 and 2003, though average prose and document literacy did not differ significantly from 1992.

The survey uses the following definitions 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 required to perform quantitative tasks (i.e., to identify and
perform computations, either alone or sequentially, using numbers embedded in printed materials).
Examples of the below basic level included:
– searching a short, simple text to find out what a patient is allowed to drink before a medical test (prose)
– signing a form (document)
– adding the amounts on a bank deposit slip (quantitative)
At the basic level, examples included:
– finding in a pamphlet for prospective jurors an explanation of how people were selected for
the jury pool
– using a television guide to find out what programs are on at a specific time
– comparing the ticket prices for two events
The intermediate level examples included:
– consulting reference materials to determine which foods contain a particular vitamin
– identifying a specific location on a map
– calculating the total cost of ordering specific office supplies from a catalog
The proficient level included:
– comparing viewpoints in two editorials
– interpreting a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity
– computing and comparing the cost per ounce of food items
Much has been made in the press about the report’s finding of a decline in literacy of college graduates, and the reasons for that decline. For example, from the New York Times – “Literacy Falls for Graduates From College, Testing Finds”

When the test was last administered, in 1992, 40 percent of the nation’s college graduates scored at the proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. But on the 2003 test, only 31 percent of the graduates demonstrated those high-level skills
. . .
Grover J. Whitehurst, director of an institute within the Department of Education that helped to oversee the test, said he believed that the literacy of college graduates had dropped because a rising number of young Americans in recent years had spent their free time watching television and surfing the Internet.
“We’re seeing substantial declines in reading for pleasure, and it’s showing up in our literacy levels,” he said.

I’ve not so sure about this analysis. I can see where a rise in TV watching might result in lower literacy levels. But I thought time spent watching TV was not rising. And I’m not sure the connection between surfing the Internet – especially since much of surfing is scanning materials and picking out the relevant portions (which sounds like “document literacy”).
In most cases, the decline in the “proficiency” category by college graduates was mirrored by an increase in the “intermediate” category. The Christian Science Monitor reported that there was:

modest literacy gains among African-Americans and Asian-Americans, but a drop among Hispanics in overall English literacy – the ability, essentially, to comprehend newspaper articles and fill out job applications. No significant changes were measured in whites among the 19,175 people surveyed. Moreover, literacy experts say, some 1.5 million adults a year show improvement in their reading skills, and there’s a 5 percent annual growth in the total number of students taking literacy classes.

A more striking finding was the decline in English literacy in the Hispanic population. As the New York Times story relates:

The same period saw big declines in Hispanics’ English reading skills. In 1992, 35 percent of Hispanics demonstrated “below basic” English literacy, but by 2003 that segment had swelled to 44 percent. And at the higher-performing end of the literacy scale, the proportion of Hispanics demonstrating intermediate or proficient English skills dropped to 27 percent from 33 percent in 1992.
“These are big shifts,” said Mark Schneider, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the arm of the Department of Education that gave the test.
“The Hispanic population in 2003 is radically different than in 1992, and many of the factors that have changed for Spanish-language immigrants make learning English more difficult,” Mr. Schneider said. “They are arriving later, staying in the U.S. for a shorter period, and fewer are speaking English at home.”

According to the Monitor, the story is our response to the

some 40 million American adults can’t read much beyond “See Spot run,” many of them concentrated in economically depressed areas from Oklahoma to South Carolina. That fact puts pressure on a national strategy that is focused on schoolchildren and that was at risk this year of losing a chunk of federal funding for adult literacy programs.
“The idea is if we put money into elementary schools and prevent the problem, that’ll solve it, but it’s not enough,” says Rochelle Cassella of ProLiteracy Worldwide in Syracuse, N.Y. “It doesn’t address a sizable population that exists already.”

Hurdles impeding adult literacy include intergenerational illiteracy – when parents don’t read, their children often don’t – as well as economic and cultural barriers.

Dealing with this intergenerational illiteracy might be the hardest task of all. When kids don’t pick up on the importance of literacy from their parents, it is doubtful that they never will. And while low literacy abilities might have been a hindrance to the parents, it will become an insurmountable barrier to their kids as the economy shifts more and more to an information base.
Overall, the assessment shows a little progress in the past 10 years. The total percentage of those at basic or above has increased slightly in all three areas. The problem is that it has not increased enough. With 22 percept of the total population at the below-basic level in quantitative literacy, 14 percent at the below-basic level in prose literacy and 12 percent at the below-basic level in document literacy, we still have a long way to do to make sure everyone can prosper in the new I-Cubed Economy.


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