STATE – A recently released federal study estimates that 32 million adults in the United States – about one in seven – lack basic literacy skills. They would find it challenging to read this newspaper article or figure out a bill.
“They really cannot read … paragraphs (or) sentences that are connected,” says Sheida White, a U.S. Education Department researcher.
The new findings are 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.
The picture is a little bit worse in New Jersey, where an estimated 17 percent of the population has low literacy skills, up from 16 percent in the 1992 survey. For the first time, the Education Department has released literacy estimates down to the county level.
Seventeen percent of Middlesex County adults have low literacy skills, according to the 2003 estimate. While this number matches the state average, it is a sharp increase from the 12 percent estimate from the 1992 survey. Twenty-one percent of Union County adults have low literacy skills, according to the 2003 estimate — a one percent increase from the 1992 survey.
The study findings show that the nation hasn’t made a dent in its adult literacy problem in recent years. Between 1992 and 2003, the U.S. adult population increased by about 23 million, and an estimated 3.6 million more adults have low literacy skills.
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said adult literacy efforts are inefficient and “scattered” across government agencies. “We’re not using research-based practices, broadly applied,” she said.
Some states did make sizable improvements. For example, the percentage of adults in Mississippi with low skills dropped 9 percentage points, from 25 percent to 16 percent. All 82 counties showed improvement.
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.”
Harvey cites undiagnosed learning disabilities, immigration and high school dropouts as reasons for the poor literacy numbers.
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