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Feb 23 2006

The state of literacy in the US

The government’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is an invaluable source of information about the state of education in the US. Among other things, it periodically measures the state of literacy and determines what percentage of the population falls into four categories: below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient. These levels are defined (with samples of abilities and skill sets) are given below:

Below Basic indicates no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills.

Key abilities
• locating easily identifiable information in short, commonplace prose texts
• locating easily identifiable information and following written instructions in simple documents (e.g., charts or forms)
• locating numbers and using them to perform simple quantitative operations (primarily addition) when the mathematical information is very concrete and familiar

Sample tasks typical of level
• searching a short, simple text to find out what a patient is allowed to drink before a medical test
• signing a form
• adding the amounts on a bank deposit slip

Basic indicates skills necessary to perform simple and everyday literacy activities.

Key abilities
• reading and understanding information in short, commonplace prose texts
• reading and understanding information in simple documents
• locating easily identifiable quantitative information and using it to solve simple, one-step problems when the arithmetic operation is specified or easily inferred

Sample tasks typical of level
• 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

Intermediate indicates skills necessary to perform moderately challenging literacy activities.

Key abilities
• reading and understanding moderately dense, less commonplace prose texts as well as summarizing, making simple inferences, determining cause and effect, and recognizing the author’s purpose
• locating information in dense, complex documents and making simple inferences about the information
• locating less familiar quantitative information and using it to solve problems when the arithmetic operation is not specified or easily inferred

Sample tasks typical of level
• 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

Proficient indicates skills necessary to perform more complex and challenging literacy activities.

Key abilities
• reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences
• integrating, synthesizing, and analyzing multiple pieces of information located in complex documents
• locating more abstract quantitative information and using it to solve multistep problems when the arithmetic operations are not easily inferred and the problems are more complex

Sample tasks typical of level
• 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

The 2003 results can be found on page 4 of the NCES document.

For prose literacy, the population breaks up as 14% below basic, 29% basic, 44% intermediate, and 13% proficient.

For documents literacy, 12% are below basic, 22% basic, 53% intermediate, and 13% proficient.

For quantitative literacy, 22% are below basic, 33% basic, 33% intermediate, and 13% proficient.

It does not surprise me that the literacy levels go down for quantitative skills. What does surprise me is that the bars are set so low. Maybe I am living in a dream world (after all, I do work in a university!) but it seems like the tasks required of people at the proficient level are the minimal ones needed to function effectively in modern society, if you are to have a sense that one is aware of what is going on around.

For example, last week I was preparing my tax returns and it seemed to me that to be able to do them requires proficiency level (at least as far as prose and document literacy went), since there was a lot of “if-then’ reasoning involved. And my taxes are fairly simple since my finances are straightforward, as is the case for most people whose income comes mainly in the form of salary or wages.

To think that only 13% reach proficiency level in all three categories is troubling. How do the rest even do their taxes, let alone make sense of the complexities of the modern world?

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