Title: NALS Raises Vital Equity Issues
This article is a summary of Stephen Reder's panel presentation at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Twenty-third Annual Legislative Weekend. The panel, chaired by the Hon. Donald M. Payne of New Jersey, was convened on September 16, 1993 in Washington, DC.
The recently released National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), reporting data collected in 1992 by the National Center for Education Statistics, represents the most comprehensive assessment in decades of adults' literacy capabilities and needs. The survey involved a random sample of about 26,000 of the nation's adult population (age 16 and over).
The NALS survey, conducted in homes, included an interview to obtain information about individuals' social, economic, and educational histories and status as well as their literacy activities. It also included an assessment of their functional literacy capabilities. The assessment consisted of simulated functional or real-world tasks, like filling in a form, extracting information from a chart, and looking through a newspaper article for needed information. These items, which ranged in format, complexity, and difficulty, were designed to assess individuals' abilities to process information in prose, document, and quantitative tasks. Numerical proficiency scores were estimated for each individual's prose, document, and quantitative literacy abilities based on the tasks that they were able to perform correctly. These scores range from 0-500 on each scale and were categorized at one of five general levels of proficiency. According to the NALS report, individuals at the two lowest proficiency levels are able to perform a limited range of relatively simple tasks; but individuals functioning at these levels have substantial difficulties performing more challenging literacy tasks, particularly those requiring higher level reading and problem-solving skills.
RESULTS OF THE NALS
The results of the NALS are striking. Nearly half of the nation's adults, 16 years and older, perform at the two lowest levels of proficiency. The NALS report demonstrates that the literacy proficiencies measured by this assessment are closely related to indicators of the social and economic well-being of individuals and families, such as labor force participation, income level, poverty status, involvement with the criminal justice system, and voting activity.
As important as these findings are regarding the nation as a whole, the data regarding Blacks need to be highlighted. The NALS reports that 75-80% of Black adults in the United States are functioning at the two lowest proficiency levels, compared to 38-43% of White adults. Correspondingly higher concentrations of non-employment, low income, poverty, welfare utilization, and incarceration are found among Black adults in these data as well.