A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st Century

National Center for Education Statistics
December 2005

The 2005 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) contains predictably bad news, surprisingly good news, and some news that can only be described as baffling. The NAAL, last conducted in 1992, measures how well adults can read and evaluates their literacy in three areas: prose (ability to interpret news stories), documents (ability to read and understand bills, maps, prescription labels, and such), and quantitative (ability to understand numbers found on tax forms, bank statements, etc.). Overall, today's adults are no more or less capable with prose and documents now than they were in 1992. They do, however, fare better with quantitative data. The bad news is that, when survey takers are broken out by education level (some high school or less, high school graduate, college graduate, and post-college graduate), no group improved its literacy levels in any of the three areas. The best that can be said is that no group changed since 1992. When results are examined by race, some of the news gets worse. Among Hispanics, literacy levels are down dramatically. On the other hand, African-Americans and Asians are performing significantly better than 13 years ago. (Whites show no statistically significant change.) The most baffling finding is that, among people who have taken graduate courses, literacy fell sharply; 41 percent scored at the proficient level, vs. 51 percent in 1992. These findings are available in several formats. Links to the entire study, or portions of it, can be found here. A PowerPoint presentation can be found here.

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