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Posted: Thu Mar 23, 2006 11:30 am Post subject: Measurement needed for so-called Higher Ed
New Adult Literacy Data Puts College Credentials in Question
December saw the release of the important, once-a-decade National
Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). Administered in 2003 by the U.S.
Department of Education, the NAAL found no change since 1992 in the
overall "prose" or "document" literacy of American adults, but a
significant increase in "quantitative" literacy, i.e. math. The good
news is that the percentage of adults--particularly black adults--who
score at the lowest literacy levels declined significantly. However, a
closer look at the data suggests that a disturbing number of
college-educated adults have literacy skills that put the validity of
their education credentials in serious question.
Literacy among black adults was up in all three categories, narrowing
the black-white gap. By contrast, Hispanic prose and document literacy
declined, which is likely linked to rising immigration. Overall literacy
is up among women and down among men. Most significantly, the
male-female gap in quantitative literacy was halved. Declining
educational results among males is a notable trend, but easily
understood with a few hours' viewing of "Spike TV--the Cable Television
Network for Men."
Significantly, NAAL focuses on the complete range of literacy skills,
measured in four categories: "Below Basic," "Basic," "Intermediate," and
"Proficient." Only 31 percent of college graduates are proficient in
prose literacy, down from 40 percent in 1992. Document literacy dropped
from 37 percent to 25 percent. Quantitative literacy was unchanged at 31
That means that fewer than one-in-three college graduates can
successfully perform tasks such as understanding and comparing the
viewpoints of two newspaper editorials, interpreting a table with data
about blood pressure and physical activity, or computing and comparing
the cost per ounce of different food items. Perhaps more disturbing,
nearly one in five college graduates score at only Basic literacy
levels, which means they have trouble with tasks like consulting
reference materials and calculating the total cost of items ordered from
These depressing results point to the great need to hold higher
education institutions accountable for how well they actually educate
their students. Institutional reputations currently rise and fall based
on what their students achieved in high school, not in college. As a
result, institutions focus their energies on boosting their status,
endowment, athletic programs, and student facilities--whatever it takes
to get "better" students to enroll. Teaching them well once they arrive
gets short shrift. Until that changes, expect similar results from
future NAAL testing.
"A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st Century"
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
"Literacy Falls for Graduates From College, Testing Finds" (subscription
Sam Dillon, The New York Times, December 16, 2005.
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