Over the past two decades, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has conducted three national assessments of adult literacy, including the 2003 NAAL. For a complete history of literacy click here.
In 1985, the U.S. Department of Education extended the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to include a nationally representative sample of 3,600 young adults between the ages of 21 and 25. That study came to be known as the Young Adult Literacy Assessment (YALA). Using a combination of reading questions and questions designed to simulate literacy activities that adults encounter in daily life, YALA surveyed the extent and nature of the literacy problem among young adults. It included a background questionnaire, which collected information on family background, respondent characteristics, educational experiences, work and community experiences, and literacy practices. Also, it was the first literacy study to measure three distinct areas of literacy—prose, document, and quantitative. View a list of 1985 YALA resources.
Three years later, Congress passed the Adult Education Amendments of 1988 (Title II of Public Law 100-297), which required the U.S. Department of Education to (1) submit a report to Congress on the definition of literacy and then (2) report on the nature and extent of literacy among adults in the nation. To satisfy these requirements, NCES developed the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), a nationally representative survey of adults, age 16 and older, residing in households and prisons. Nearly 13,600 randomly selected adults participated in the main NALS household survey, representing the entire U.S. adult population. Nearly 1,150 inmates from 87 state and federal prisons were interviewed to gather information on the literacy of the prison population. In addition, almost 1,000 randomly selected adults were surveyed in each of the 12 states that chose to participate in the State Adult Literacy Survey (SALS), designed to provide state-level results that were comparable to the national data. These states included California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington. View a list of 1992 NALS resources.
The 1992 NALS offered the nation a snapshot of the condition of literacy for the U.S. population as a whole and among key population subgroups. The 2003 NAAL provides an updated picture of adult literacy skills, revealing changes in literacy over the past decade.