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Adult Literacy

Literacy by Race/Ethnicity

The percentage of Whites, Blacks, and Asians/Pacific Islanders with Below Basic1 literacy decreased between 1992 and 2003 on the prose and document2 scales (figures 1 and 2). Among Hispanics, the percentage with Below Basic prose literacy increased 9 percentage points between 1992 and 2003, while the percentage with Below Basic document literacy increased 8 percentage points (figures 1 and 2).

Although the percentage of Hispanics with Below Basic document literacy increased between 1992 and 2003, the percentage of Hispanics with Below Basic document literacy was lower than the percentage of Hispanics with Below Basic prose literacy (figures 1 and 2).

For prose and document literacy in 2003, the percentage of Whites and Asians/Pacific Islanders with Proficient1 literacy was significantly higher than the percentage of Blacks and Hispanics (figures 1 and 2). A higher percentage of Whites than Asians/Pacific Islanders had Proficient prose literacy (figure 1). On all scales, Hispanics were more likely than Blacks to have Proficient literacy (figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. Percentage in each prose literacy level by race/ethnicity: 1992 and 2003


Percentage in each prose literacy level by race/ethnicity: 1992 and 2003

Significantly different from 1992. Significantly different from 1992.
NOTE: Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Adults are defined as people 16 years of age and older living in households or prisons. Adults who could not be interviewed due to language spoken or cognitive or mental disabilities (3 percent in 2003 and 4 percent in 1992) are excluded from this figure. In 1992, respondents were allowed to identify only one race. In 2003, respondents were allowed to identify multiple races. In 2003, 2 percent of respondents Identified multiple races and are not included in the White, Black, or Asian/Pacific Islander category. All adults of Hispanic origin are classified as Hispanic, regardless of race. The Asian/Pacific Islander category included native Hawaiians.
SOURCE: Figure 8 in Kutner, M., Greenberg, E., and Baer. J. (2005). A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st Century (NCES 2006-470). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Figure 2. Percentage of adults in each document literacy level by race/ethnicity:
1992 and 2003


Percentage of adults in each document literacy level by race/ethnicity: 1992 and 2003

Significantly different from 1992. Significantly different from 1992.
NOTE: Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Adults are defined as people 16 years of age and older living in households or prisons. Adults who could not be interviewed due to language spoken or cognitive or mental disabilities (3 percent in 2003 and 4 percent in 1992) are excluded from this figure. In 1992, respondents were allowed to identify only one race. In 2003, respondents were allowed to identify multiple races. In 2003, 2 percent of respondents Identified multiple races and are not included in the White, Black, or Asian/Pacific Islander category. All adults of Hispanic origin are classified as Hispanic, regardless of race. The Asian/Pacific Islander category included native Hawaiians.
SOURCE: Figure 8 in Kutner, M., Greenberg, E., and Baer. J. (2005). A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st Century (NCES 2006-470). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Literacy by Educational Attainment

In 2003, literacy was lowest across the scales for adults who did not complete high school; these adults also accounted for the largest group with Below Basic prose and document literacy (table 1).

In 2003, prose and document literacy rose with successive levels of educational attainment beginning with the completion of high school. Average prose and document literacy for adults who completed a GED was not significantly different from that of adults who stopped their education after graduating high school.

The declining performance of adults with higher educational attainment was reflected in the decrease between 1992 and 2003 in the percentage of adults with postsecondary degrees with Proficient prose and document literacy (table 1). On the prose scale, the percentage of college graduates with Proficient literacy decreased from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003. For adults who took graduate classes or completed a graduate degree, the percentage with Proficient prose literacy fell 10 percentage points between 1992 and 2003.

Table 1. Percentage of adults in each prose and document literacy level, by educational
attainment: 1992 and 2003


Percentage of adults in each prose and document literacy level, by educational attainment: 1992 and 2003

Significantly different from 1992. Significantly different from 1992.
NOTE: Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Adults are defined as people 16 years of age and older living in households or prisons. Adults who could not be interviewed due to language spoken or cognitive or mental disabilities (3 percent in 2003 and 4 percent in 1992) are excluded from this figure. In 1992, respondents were allowed to identify only one race. In 2003, respondents were allowed to identify multiple races. In 2003, 2 percent of respondents Identified multiple races and are not included in the White, Black, or Asian/Pacific Islander category. All adults of Hispanic origin are classified as Hispanic, regardless of race. The Asian/Pacific Islander category included native Hawaiians.
SOURCE: Figure 8 in Kutner, M., Greenberg, E., and Baer. J. (2005). A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st Century (NCES 2006-470). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.


1 Adults were categorized as having Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, or Proficient literacy skills. Below Basic indicates no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills. Basic indicates skills necessary to perform simple and everyday literacy activities. Intermediate indicates skills necessary to perform moderately challenging literacy activities. Proficient indicates skills necessary to perform more complex and challenging literacy activities. Please refer to Table 1 in A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st Century for more detailed information.

2 Prose Literacy is defined as the knowledge and skills needed to perform prose tasks (i.e., to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts). Document Literacy is defined as the knowledge and skills to perform document tasks (i.e., to search, comprehend, and use information from noncontinuous texts in various formats). Please refer to page 2 of A First Look at the Literacy of America's Adults in the 21st Century for more detailed information.

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National Center for Education Statistics - http://nces.ed.gov
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