Table 1. NAEP proficiency levels and the reading-grade-level equivalents.
The young adult survey by the NAEP (1985) found that only 40 percent of young adults 17 to 25 no longer in high school, and 17 years old and in high school, read at a 12th-grade level. Large numbers leave high school still reading at the 8th-grade level or lower. The 1990 census showed that 24.8 percent of adults did not graduate from high school.
The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) of 1992 This U.S. Government study sampled 26,000 adults, representing 191 million adults. In 1993, it published the first of a number of reports on this survey entitled, "Adult Literacy in America" (National Center for Education Statistics 1993, 1999, 2001).
This study used the same tests as the Young Adult Literacy Survey and reported data with the same five levels of skill.
Table 2. Percentages of adults in the U.S. in each of the five NAEP skill levels for each literacy skill (Sticht and Armstrong 1995, p. 113).
The data in this table suggest 40 to 44 million adults in the U.S. are in Level 1, defined as "functionally illiterate, not having enough reading skills for daily life." Some 50 million are in Level 2. This means the percentage of adults who struggle at Levels 1 and 2 (below the 5th-grade level) in the U.S. reaches 48 percent.
The report confirmed that numeracy (quantitative) skills increase with reading skills. Adults of different reading skills not only have different worldviews but also different life experiences. Forty-three percent of adults with low-literacy skills live in poverty, 17% receive food stamps, and 70% have no job or part-time job. Over 60 % of frontline workers producing goods have difficulty applying information from a text to a task. More than 20% of adults read below the sixth-grade level, far below the level needed to earn a living wage.
Adults at Level 1 earned a median income of $240 a week, while those at Level 5 earned $681. Seventy percent of prisoners are in the lowest two levels.
In support of these figures, the number of companies reporting shortages of skilled workers doubled between 1995 and 1998. Ninety percent of Fortune 1000 executives reported that low literacy is hurting productivity and profitability. In one survey, more than half of the responding company representatives said that high school graduates applying for jobs are not literate enough to hire.
Low levels of literacy have caused costly and dangerous mistakes in the workplace. There are other costs in billions of dollars in the workplace resulting from low productivity, poor quality of products and services, mistakes, absenteeism, and lost management time.
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