A New Reading on U.S. Literacy : Test Scores Are Low, but What Do They Measure?


Once again, the question arises: Is America becoming a nation of illiterates?

Consider the results of a series of studies released in recent weeks:

* Fourth-graders in California ranked tied for 49th in a state-by-state spelling survey.

* Twenty-five percent of high school seniors across the country can barely read their diplomas, a “reading report card” from the federal government disclosed.


* And a 50-minute standardized test administered to 26,000 people 16 or older concluded that 80 million Americans are deficient in the basic reading and mathematical skills needed to perform rudimentary tasks in today’s society.

What’s more, many of the 26,000 examined were surprised to hear themselves described as deficient, said Tom Ewing of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., which administered the test for the U.S. Department of Education.

“The people who were surveyed had this misperception that they could read and write effectively,” Ewing said. “They would not define themselves as illiterate. But their perceptions didn’t match the realities of the situation.”

Time to panic? Some literacy specialists insist it’s too early. Labels such as “illiterate” are ill-defined and sometimes misleading, they contend, and testing methodology can be confusing. Such criticisms underscore the continuing disagreement over the fairness and worth of standardized exams.

The fact that so many of the ETS test-takers thought they were functioning well was a source of alarm for Tom Stitch, a literacy researcher in El Cajon and former chair of the California Work Force Literacy Task Force.

With reading skills at fifth- to ninth-grade levels, “roughly half” the people who took this newest national adult literacy test are what he calls “mid-level literates.”

“They have literacy skills,” he said. “What they need is solid education and training programs that teach them something valuable.”

“People are overstating the results on the basis of labeling,” said Bob Forsyth, an expert on testing at the University of Iowa. In particular, Forsyth, a professor of education, questioned the way these recent tests have emphasized “proficiency” and “deficiency” in what are described as a series of “basic” skills.


“Rightly so, all at once ‘proficient’ has this aura about it,” Forsyth said. “And ‘basic’ may mean one thing to me and something quite different to somebody else.”

Robert Atwan, who spent four years as a tester for the Educational Testing Service in the 1970s, said he stumbled over some of the sample questions printed along with the results of ETS’ “National Adult Literacy Survey” several weeks ago. (Ewing said the ETS refuses to release the actual test questions, but sample questions published “are of the same difficulty level” as those on the actual survey.)

Atwan, a writer and editor, said he paused over a query involving appliance repair and hesitated when pondering the response to a hypothetical home equity loan calculation. But it was the example involving the cost of theater tickets in New York that really threw him.

“Broadway show tickets? I mean, come on,” Atwan said, marveling at what he perceived to be a cultural bias. He said such “trick questions” made him question the entire testing process.


“I think what you’re finding out is that Americans are easily tricked,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they can’t read.”

Besides, he added, “they’re not taking this test the way some 17-year-old prepping for Harvard is going to do it.”

Cinthia Schuman, executive director of an achievement test watchdog group called Fair Test, in Cambridge, Mass., also voiced concerns over the sample adult literacy questions.

“Instead of measuring reading comprehension, test-taking skills become an important part of what is going on,” Schuman said.


Some of the examples seemed ambiguous, Schuman said, making her wonder if the results showed whether the test-takers “couldn’t read, or couldn’t figure out the tricks of the test.”

The demographically balanced sampling included older Americans, immigrants, prison inmates and people who terminated their educations at an early age, the ETS said. Fourteen types of printed material were examined in the 165-task assessment.

But John Wick, a professor of education at Northwestern University who has authored educational testing programs for schoolchildren, praised the substance and the intent of what is described as the largest study to date of adult literacy in the United States.

“I don’t think it’s a regent’s exam,” he said, referring to a set of tests required of college-bound high school students in some states. “It really does demand a level of reading that I would expect from any good high school graduate, and it doesn’t go beyond that.”


At the nonprofit Literacy Assistance Center in New York, Karen Pearl lauded the way the adult literacy survey divided “proficiency” into five levels.

The results showed “the importance of making a distinction between people who are illiterate, and what they are calling these different levels of literacy,” said Pearl, the group’s executive director.

By demanding degrees of comprehension, the survey went beyond the tired old image of “literacy” as the ability to read and write one’s name, Pearl said.

And, she continued, “if we really are going to do what everybody wants us to, which is prepare for real, meaningful jobs for the next century, people will need those skills.”


That, in a sentence, was very much the message that Irwin Kirsch, who oversaw the adult literacy survey for ETS, said the study was intended to convey.

Adults whose proficiency skills hovered at the lowest levels “seem to be associated by the data with less opportunity in our society,” Kirsch said.

“What we tried to show is that literacy has become a currency in our society--it’s something important, and the people who are the least proficient are the most at risk.”

Nowhere in the report are the words “illiteracy” or “illiterate” so much as mentioned, Kirsch observed. On the contrary, he said, “we argue against such simple classifications.”


Indeed, Kirsch went on, “as a society we are probably more literate than we have ever been.” But literacy, he maintained, has turned into a “moving target.”

The “literacy problem” is “not just a single issue,” he said. “It’s a whole set of issues.”

Stitch, in El Cajon, called the entire survey “literacy’s 15 minutes of fame.”

When the results of the new study were announced, Stitch said, “All we heard from the secretary of education was ‘Isn’t this terrible?’ We never heard, ‘And here’s what we’re going to do about it.’ ”