American adults can read a newspaper or other basic printed material about as well as they could a decade ago, but the reading proficiency of college graduates has declined, according to A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century, a new report from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). Only 31 percent of college graduates have “proficient” prose literacy, indicating that they can compare two viewpoints in an editorial, a decrease of 9 percentage points.
Dolores Perin, a reading expert at Columbia University Teachers College, said that a lack of reading skills among college graduates begins at the high school level. “There is a tremendous literacy problem among high school graduates that is not talked about,” she told the Washington Post. “It’s a little bit depressing. The colleges are left holding the bag, trying to teach students who have challenges.” According to the most recent results of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), 29 percent of American eighth graders in public schools read at “below basic” levels, which means they have no literal understanding of what they read.
The report also found that 12 percent of American adults had below basic document literacy, indicating that they would struggle using a television guide to find out what time a program aired or identifying a specific location on a map. In addition, 14 percent lacked prose literacy, indicating that they could not find how people were selected for a jury pool from a pamphlet for prospective jurors. According to the report, adults without a high school degree or a GED comprised 55 percent of the adults in this category, even though high school dropouts only represent 15 percent of the total NAAL population.
In 2003, literacy levels were lowest for adults who did not complete high school; these adults also accounted for the largest group with below basic prose, document, and quantitative literacy. On the quantitative scale, for example, over 60 percent of adults without a high school degree had below basic literacy, indicating that they could not compare the ticket prices for two events.
“One adult unable to read is one too many in America,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. “We must take a comprehensive and preventive approach, beginning with elementary schools and with special emphasis in our high schools. We must focus resources toward proven, research-based methods to ensure that all adults have the necessary literacy skills to be successful.”
Secretary Spellings’s complete statement, which includes a link to the full report, is available at