By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
A long-awaited federal study finds that an estimated 32 million adults in the USA — about one in seven — are saddled with such low literacy skills that it would be tough for them to read anything more challenging than a children's picture book or to understand a medication's side effects listed on a pill bottle.
Though many communities are making strides to tackle the problem, it's worsening elsewhere — in some cases significantly.
Overall, the study finds, the nation hasn't made a dent in its adult-literacy problem: From 1992 to 2003, it shows, the USA added about 23 million adults to its population; in that period, an estimated 3.6 million more joined the ranks of adults with low literacy skills.
How low? It would be a challenge to read this newspaper article or deconstruct a fuel bill.
"They really cannot read … paragraphs (or) sentences that are connected," says Sheida White, a researcher at the U.S. Education Department.
The findings come from the department's National Assessment of Adult Literacy, a survey of more than 19,000 Americans ages 16 and older. The 2003 survey is a follow-up to a similar one in 1992 and for the first time lets the public see literacy rates as far down as county levels.
In many cases, states made sizable gains. In Mississippi, the percentage of adults with low skills dropped 9 percentage points, from 25% to 16%. In every one of its 82 counties, low-skill rates dropped — in a few cases by 20 percentage points or more.
By contrast, in several large states — California, New York, Florida and Nevada, for instance — the number of adults with low skills rose.
David Harvey, president and CEO of ProLiteracy, an adult-literacy organization, says Mississippi "invested more in education … and they have done innovative programming. We need much more of that."
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says efforts in adult literacy are inefficient and "scattered" across government agencies.
"We're not using research-based practices, broadly applied," she says.
Harvey cites undiagnosed learning disabilities, immigration and high school dropouts as reasons for the poor literacy numbers.
The findings are published online at http://nces.ed.gov/naal/estimates/index.aspx
Indirect estimate of percent lacking Basic prose literacy skills and corresponding credible intervals : California 2003
Indirect estimate of percent lacking Basic prose literacy skills and corresponding credible intervals in Los Angeles County: California 2003
* The state and county Federal Information processing Standards (FIPS) codes are standardized unique state and county identifiers. The first two positions identify the state, and the last three positions identify the county. For more information, see http://www.census.gov/geo/www/fips/fips.html
1 Estimated population size of persons 16 years and older in households in 2003.
2 Those lacking Basic prose literacy skills include those who scored Below Basic in prose and those who could not be tested due to language barriers.
3 The estimated percent lacking Basic prose literacy skills has a margin of error as measured by the associated credible interval. There is a 95% chance that the value of the percent lacking Basic prose literacy skills is contained between the lower and upper bound.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy