[Assessment 1337] Re: Tests vs. Self Assessments of Literacy

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tsticht at znet.com tsticht at znet.com
Mon Jun 9 21:37:24 EDT 2008

Daphne: You asked:
1. Is it possible that some/many struggling adult readers are okay with
their level of literacy performance? Perhaps they have jobs/community
support that meet their literacy abilities and needs.

My response: In 2002 I wrote the following note that discusses differences
among whites, blacks, and Hispanics in terms of their measured (test
scores) and self-perceptions of reading abilities and discussed
"sub-cultural niches" which people may occupy that influence their
perceived reading abilities. This seems to me to be related to your ideas
in the above question. It is an interesting puzzle of diversity and

Tom Sticht

Research Note December 10, 2002

Where does the reading problem go when children grow up?

Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education

Have the reading skills of students coming out of the K-12 public school
system declined in the last half century? The 1992 National Adult Literacy
Survey (NALS) provides some data bearing on this issue.

The NALS assessed adult literacy using three scales: Prose, Document and
Quantitative. A report on the Literacy of Older Adults in America, from the
National Center for Education Statistics in Washington, DC, November 1996
(p. 35) reported data on the age and literacy
proficiency for adults with varying amounts of education.

For adults with 0-12 years of education but no high school diploma or GED,
proficiency on the NALS Prose scale were:

Age Proficiency
16-24 233
25-59 210
60-69 211

For adults with high school diplomas or GEDs the average literacy
proficiencies for the three age groups were:

Age Proficiency
16-24 274
25-59 273
60-69 262

For adults with post-secondary education the average literacy proficiencies
for the three age groups were:

Age Proficiency
16-24 311
25-59 315
60-69 293

>From these NALS data, it appears that for adults across 60 years of age

their literacy skills do not vary much on the average. This would seem to
indicate that regardless of how literacy has been taught in the last 60
years, once adults with similar amounts of schooling get out of school and
spend some time in other activities, their literacy skills don’t differ
very much, at least for the adults sampled in 1992 and assessed using the
functional literacy tasks of the NALS.

Adult's Perceptions of Their Reading Skills

It is one thing to use standardized tests to judge the reading skills of
adults and still another to ask those same adults how well they read the
English language. The question is, do the nation's adults think they have a
reading problem?

The 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) asked adults to rate their
own reading skills as they perceived them. In the report on the Literacy of
Older Adults in America, from the National Center for Education Statistics
in Washington, DC, November 1996, the authors reported (p. 43) that adults
aged 16 to 59 rated themselves as reading Very Well-72%, Well-22% and Not
Well/Not At All-7%. Overall, then, some 93% of adults in this age range
rated themselves as reading Well or Very Well.

When broken out by ethnic groups, ratings were found of

Whites: Very Well-77%, Well-21%, or Not Well/Not At All-3%.
Blacks: Very Well-67%, Well-27% and Not Well/Not At All-6%.
Hispanics: Very Well-46%, Well-22% and Not Well/Not At All-32%

In this analysis, only Hispanics reported a high percentage, 32 percent, or
5.3 million adults, who thought they could not read English Well or Very
Well, no doubt reflecting the large immigrant population in this category
with less education and poorer English language skills than U. S. born
adults. Among both Blacks and Whites, poor reading appears to be a
perceived problem for only 3 to 6 percent of these populations, about 4.5
million adults in the age range 16-59.

Sub-cultural niches for literacy

When the average proficiencies of Whites and Blacks on the NALS Prose scale
were compared, it was found that for Whites who rated themselves as reading
Very Well, their average Prose proficiency was 308, whereas for Blacks
rating themselves as reading Very Well, their Prose average proficiency was
259. On the Quantitative scale, Whites rating themselves as reading Well
scored 278 on the NALS , while Blacks who rated themselves as reading Well
scored 221, near the lower end of the NALS scale.

This indicates that two sub-cultural groups may both rate themselves as
about equally competent in terms of their self-perceived reading abilities,
even though their measured competence may differ as much as a full standard
deviation on standardized literacy tests. This suggests an adaptive
function within each sub-cultural group to the ambient literacy abilities
and demands of each sub-group as its members encounter and perceive them.

It would seem to be a useful activity to find out more about these cultural
and sub-cultural phenomena with regard to the differences between adults'
measured literacy abilities and their self-perceptions of their literacy
abilities, and to use this information to better understand the scale of
need and desire for adults to participate in adult education and literacy

This may be even more important in light of the fact that the NALS indicated
that some 10 million adults were such poor readers that they could not even
take the exam. While this might not be a national crisis for a nation with
some 200 million adults, it is a national disgrace that so little is being
done to help these adults help themselves and their families. With combined
state and federal funding for the adult education and literacy programs
operating under the Workforce Investment Act, Title 2, Adult Education and
Family Literacy below a woeful $800 per enrollee, this is poverty level
funding for the education of our most difficult to reach and educate

It seems to me to be a national shame to spend billions of dollars to leave
no children behind, while largely ignoring the desperate need of the
children's parents and leaving them behind. How can this be an inspiration
to children to pursue their own education? How can parents who cannot read
be their children’s first reading teachers? Conceivably, if we invested
more in the education of poorly educated adults, we could influence the
educability of the adult’s children.

Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
2062 Valley View Blvd.
El Cajon, CA 92019-2059
Tel/fax: (619) 444-9133
Email: tsticht at aznet.net