American Literacy in the 21st Century

For the first time in more than a decade educators have the information they need to answer questions about the state of literacy in our country, and the results are not encouraging.

In December 2005 the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released the results of their 2003 study of adult literacy in the United States. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) reported on a literacy test administered randomly to adults over the age of 16. The tests were administered in English to individuals in households and in prisons. The report is the first from the NCES since the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) in 1992.

The NAAL examines adult literacy in three different dimensions:
�· Prose: the ability to search and use information from continuous text.
�· Document: the ability to search and use information from non-continuous text and text provided in various formats.
�· Quantitative: the ability to identify and perform computations using numbers embedded in printed material.

The results of the NAAL show that quantitative literacy has increased in the U.S., but literacy in the remaining two dimensions have shown no change. While no change is certainly more favorable than a decrease, the fact remains that real world technology and literacy demands are increasing over time, whereas the workforce skill level is not.

The test scores paint a grim picture for the future of the U.S. An estimated 30 million people fall into the Below Basic skill level, including 7 million who are non-literate in English. This means that these individuals are unable to accomplish basic daily tasks such as reading to their children, understanding dosage instructions for medicine, or adding numbers on a bank slip. Many of these individuals are unable to communicate in English, thus posing another barrier to employment. Another 4 million adults lacked sufficient English skills to be tested and were not included in the NAAL. There are also 63 million people scoring at the Basic skill level, meaning they are able to complete basic tasks necessary in everyday life such as using a television guide to determine program times or comparing ticket prices for two events. However, this group is unable to complete other important tasks such as determine vitamin content of a food through reference materials, or calculate the cost of office supplies ordered through a catalog. In short, those testing at the Basic level lack many of the literacy skills necessary to survive in a competitive workplace.

Within ethnic groups, Hispanic literacy has shown the strongest decline. Thirty-nine percent of Hispanics have below basic skills, and the group scored lower in prose and document literacy than in 1992. African-American literacy has increased the most, with higher scores in all three dimensions. Caucasians scored higher in quantitative literacy but saw no change in prose or document literacy.

One reason for the disparity among ethnic groups may be the change in demographic composition. Since 1992, the number of Caucasians as a percentage of the U.S. population has declined from 77% to 70%, while the Hispanic population has increased from 8% to 12%. In reviewing the NAAL, one interpretation is that the Hispanic population is growing faster than literacy educators can reach this group.

This is disturbing news for a country that prides itself on being globally competitive. Projected job growth in the US shows that the fastest growing jobs will require post secondary education and many of these positions could originate from foreign company investment in the North American workforce. But can the literacy of the US population grow fast enough to fill these jobs? Foreign companies are expressing doubt. In 2005 Toyota decided to locate its new North American manufacturing plant in Ontario, Canada rather than in the United States. One of Toyota’s selection criteria: trainable, literate workforce. When Toyota evaluated the US as a potential site it took into consideration the extra training cost incurred by Honda and Nissan when they built plants in Alabama. According to Gerry Fedchun, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, the literacy skills of these workers was so low that Honda and Nissan had to resort to pictorials to train workers how to use high tech equipment.

Oregon is one example of the states that face many of the same challenges as those reported on a national level by the NAAL. For instance, the Hispanic population is the fastest growing ethnic group in Oregon and the Hispanic demographic of the state is changing. Compared to 1992, Hispanics are younger, less educated, and are dropping out of high school at a higher rate than other ethnic groups.

Nationally states are stepping up to the challenge of improving literacy with the limited funding available. In Oregon, the community college network provides the majority of literacy training and served 25,000 adult literacy students in 2002-2003. And, in 2001-2002 Oregon far surpassed each of the US Department of Education performance goals with the exception of ESL. In 2005 Oregon continued to meet or surpass most literacy goals.

The NAAL report confirms that the road to achieving adult literacy is not without pitfalls, but the success stories show what the broader community can accomplish with funding, resources and dedication. Even though the report clearly indicates that additional funding is needed to address shortcomings, funding for literacy programs in 2007 may be at risk again.

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