Skip Navigation
Illustration/Logo View Quarterly by  This Issue  |  Volume and Issue  |  Topics
Education Statistics Quarterly
Vol 3, Issue 4, Topic:   Lifelong Learning
Adult Literacy and Education in America
By:  Carl F. Kaestle, Anne Campbell, Jeremy D. Finn, Sylvia T. Johnson, and Larry J. Mikulecky
This article was originally published as the Executive Summary of the Statistical Analysis Report of the same name. The sample survey data are from the NCES National Adult Literacy Survey.

The National Adult Literacy Survey provides the most detailed portrait ever created of the English literacy abilities of our nation’s adults. Funded by Congress through the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the survey was conducted in 1992. In 1993, NCES published a summary overview of the results, which described the literacy skills of adults in the United States and discussed differences among various groups in the population (Kirsch et al. 1993). Subsequently, NCES invited people who had served on the two advisory committees for the survey to produce a series of reports that look at the results of the survey, addressing different special topics in ways they believed would interest literacy workers, policymakers, and the general public. This report explores the relationship between formal schooling and adult literacy proficiency in a more detailed and analytical way than was possible in the initial overview.

The most pervasive result of the National Adult Literacy Survey is that level of formal schooling is strongly related to adult literacy proficiency. This may strike some as surprising, given much recent criticism of schools for failing to teach reading effectively and for failing to make school learning relevant to real-life tasks. Nonetheless, increased levels of formal schooling correlate with substantial gains in adult literacy proficiency for all groups, at all levels of education. This report investigates that relationship in several ways: by exploring how demographic characteristics such as race/ethnicity and age relate to literacy proficiency and formal schooling; by providing a picture of who drops out of school and what impact that decision has on adult literacy proficiency; by looking at those least effectively served by schools—those whose proficiencies are in the two lowest levels on the literacy scales; and by exploring how adult literacy proficiencies map out into the world of work.

The survey

The National Adult Literacy Survey avoided characterizing adults as either “literate” or “illiterate.” Instead, it profiled the literacy abilities of adults based on their performance on a wide array of tasks using the kinds of materials they actually encounter in their daily lives. The tasks assessed such literacy skills as finding information, making inferences, interpreting tables, reading maps, and making calculations.

The information was gathered by trained staff who interviewed over 13,600 adults in households across the country. The participants were randomly selected to represent the adult population of the country as a whole. An additional 1,000 adults were interviewed in each of 11 states that chose to participate in a concurrent survey designed to provide results that are comparable to the national data. Finally, 1,150 inmates in 80 federal and state prisons were surveyed. The prisons were randomly selected to represent prisons across the country, and the inmates themselves were randomly selected from each of the prisons. Overall, about 26,000 adults participated in the study.

Using an extensive background questionnaire, interviewers collected information about respondents’ demographic characteristics, educational background, reading practices, and other characteristics related to literacy. Then participants responded to a set of literacy tasks. Analyses of their responses yielded proficiency scores that profiled their skills on three literacy scales—prose, document, and quantitative. The scales were each divided into five levels that define the increasing difficulty and complexity of the tasks associated with them. Combining the results of the background questionnaires with the literacy proficiency scores produced a wealth of information about the characteristics of people with different literacy skills.

Organization of this report

This report explores the links between education and literacy in four ways. First, the report discusses the relationship between literacy skills and formal schooling across different demographic subgroups. Second, it describes the literacy proficiencies and other characteristics of individuals who did not complete high school. Third, it examines the characteristics—educational and otherwise—of individuals whose proficiency scores were in the two lowest levels on the literacy scales. Finally, it discusses the proficiencies and characteristics of respondents in the workforce and explores some of the implications for adult educators. Following are highlights from the report.

Back to top

The main finding that pervades the data on education in the National Adult Literacy Survey is that literacy proficiency is strongly related to level of formal schooling. Each successive level of formal education is accompanied by a rise in average literacy proficiencies. This does not prove a causal relationship, but it suggests that high literacy abilities and high levels of education strongly reinforce one another. Given the many criticisms of America’s schools in recent decades, the strong association of formal education and adult literacy skills deserves our attention. The suspicion that, on average, more schooling fosters higher levels of adult literacy skills carries policy implications. The following data show how the relationship between schooling and literacy plays out on the 500-point scale for prose literacy. Adults who did not complete high school average 231 on the prose scale, those who completed high school average 270, and those with a 4-year college degree average 322 (table A).

Literacy proficiency and race/ethnicity

Literacy proficiency also relates strongly to race/ethnicity. The average prose proficiency of White adults is 286, while that of Black adults is 237 and that of Hispanic adults is 215. The data demonstrate that schooling plays a double role in shaping the English literacy proficiencies by race/ethnicity: first, some groups are able to attain more schooling than others, which, on average, correlates with higher literacy proficiencies; second, at a given level of educational attainment, groups differ in average literacy attainment. This second phenomenon may be caused by a difference in the quality of schooling experienced by different groups and by other factors that vary by race/ethnicity. For example, the correlation between racial/ethnic groups and literacy profi-ciency is partially explained by differences in variables such as parental education and income, which are discussed in the complete report. However, the data do not measure differential quality of schooling and other factors, such as motivation and opportunity, that might affect the acquisition of literacy skills.

Literacy proficiency and age

An interesting relationship is observed between literacy proficiency and age. Average literacy proficiencies rise with each older cohort up to those who are in their forties and then decline in the older population. The rise from the cohort in their twenties to the cohort in their forties is not due to more effective schooling in earlier decades—indeed, there is no decline in the levels of literacy proficiency at a given level of formal education when comparing 40-year-olds to 20-year-olds. Rather, the differences occur because many people in the cohorts of 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds have continued to get formal education as adults. This is a picture of a learning society. The continuing formal education of adults is much reduced beyond age 50, as are the initial schooling levels of Americans in those older cohorts; the literacy proficiencies of the older cohorts are lower as well. Everything seems to point toward a connection between formal education and adult literacy skills, across all groups and all ages.

Back to top

In general, proficiency on all three dimensions of literacy is lowest for individuals who have not graduated from high school, higher for high school graduates and GED holders, and highest for individuals who have attended post-secondary schooling. This pattern is found for Black, Hispanic, and White populations alike; for males and females alike; and for adults in all age ranges. At the same time, the average proficiencies of Hispanic adults who did not begin or did not complete high school—a group representing almost half of all Hispanic individuals sampled—are substantially below those of other school noncompleters. The primary language spoken at home as a child may provide a partial explanation. High school noncompleters who grew up in Spanish-speaking homes demonstrate lower proficiencies than noncompleters from homes in which the primary language was not Spanish, even though high school graduates who grew up in Spanish-speaking homes do not exhibit this handicap.

School noncompletion and work

For high school graduates, higher proficiency is associated with an increased likelihood of being employed. Among high school noncompleters, however, there is little or no relationship between literacy proficiency and employment. Thus, for individuals who do not complete high school, increased literacy proficiency does not provide an advantage in obtaining part-time or full-time work.

High school noncompleters who are out of the workforce demonstrate extremely low literacy proficiencies. Among noncompleters, 78 percent of those 55 years of age or older are out of the workforce, as are 27 percent of those under 55. Smaller percentages of high school graduates in either age bracket are out of the workforce and, at the same time, their literacy proficiencies are not nearly as low.

Heterogeneity among noncompleters

In spite of the handicap in average literacy proficiency, individuals who do not complete high school are a diverse group. They leave school for a variety of reasons and engage in a wide range of work, education, and literacy-related activities after leaving. For example, individuals who reported leaving school because of loss of interest or behavior problems or because of pregnancy have significantly higher literacy proficiencies as adults and engage in significantly more literacy practices in comparison with individuals who dropped out for other reasons.

Table A.—Average proficiencies on each literacy scale, by education level: 1992
Table A.- Average proficiencies on each literacy scale, by education level: 1992

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Adult Literacy Survey, 1992. (Taken from figure 2.1 on p. 17 of the complete report from which this article is excerpted.)

Back to top

Not only is there a range of literacy proficiencies among those who did not complete high school, but there is also, conversely, a range of educational attainment among those whose literacy proficiencies are at the two lowest levels in the National Adult Literacy Survey. Thus, 19 percent of those who began but did not complete high school perform at level 3 or above on the prose literacy scale, while 14 percent of those with a college degree (an associate’s degree or higher) perform at level 1 or 2 on the prose scale (table B). For policy purposes, the two-edged finding of the survey is important: educational attainment correlates strongly and regularly with literacy proficiency, yet some individuals with many years of schooling are among the group with the lowest literacy proficiencies.

Nearly half the adults in America perform at level 1 or level 2. They are diverse in terms of educational experience and social characteristics. Nonetheless, some relationships are evident, and they are relevant to discussions of literacy and education. First, although level of education does not predict literacy proficiency in individual cases, there is a strong relationship between literacy and education. For example, among respondents who went to high school but did not graduate, 80 percent perform at level 1 or 2 on the prose scale; among those who had some college but no degree, 31 percent do. There is also a relationship between literacy and race/ethnicity: among Black adults, as well as among Hispanic adults, 75 percent demonstrate prose proficiency at level 1 or 2, compared with 39 percent of White adults.

Some respondents to the National Adult Literacy Survey completed the background questionnaire but completed none of the literacy tasks, or did not complete enough to produce proficiency scores. If they had been excluded from the tables, the sample would no longer have been nationally representative; thus, procedures for estimating their probable scores were implemented. About 12 percent of the entire sample consisted of such “nonresponders.” Among those classified at level 1, however, the percentage was much higher; for example, about 41 percent of those performing at level 1 on the prose scale were nonresponders. Nonresponders were asked why they did not complete the literacy tasks; if their reply was unrelated to reading ability (e.g., they had a physical disability, or had no time, or simply refused to continue), the average scores of respondents with similar background characteristics (age, ethnicity, gender, region) were factored in when estimating their literacy proficiency. If their reason was related to literacy (e.g., they did not speak English or did not read well), then the estimate was lower. The estimates were also influenced by any literacy tasks the nonresponder did complete.

Unfortunately, there is no way to be certain that these estimates did not underestimate the literacy abilities of nonresponders, so caution is required in discussing adults demonstrating proficiency at level 1. It may be that some nonresponders had literacy abilities above level 1 but wished to avoid the discomfort of having their literacy abilities tested and rated. Although the estimation procedures might underestimate some nonresponders’ literacy proficiencies, the same attitudes or anxieties that made them reluctant to complete the survey may cause them to avoid other literacy tasks in their everyday lives. Low literacy is thus a form of double jeopardy in people’s lives: it is both a technical disadvantage and a social stigma. It can both keep one from learning what one needs to know and add insult to injury by embarrassing an individual. This is a double disadvantage that policymakers and adult literacy workers need to keep in mind.

Back to top

The data show that many workers who perform at level 1 or 2 are laborers, in food service, in child care, and in maintenance occupations. These individuals are unlikely to succeed consistently at the literacy tasks of moderate difficulty demanded in many workplaces. In some occupational areas—service and farming/forestry, for example—a substantial minority of workers say they rarely read on the job, but most workplaces are alive with literacy activities and literacy demands; even in traditionally lower status jobs, many workers must write memoranda and reports. Workers who rarely read at home or on the job, however, demonstrate the lowest proficiencies, which is cause for concern as research indicates that learning loss occurs when there is lack of practice.

Enrollment in basic skills programs

About 8 percent of all employees have sought basic skills training from an employer or union program, publicly sponsored classes or tutoring, or other program. Surprisingly, the percentage is about the same in all occupational groups and at all education levels. Managerial and professional workers reported that they had sought basic skills training in the same proportions as laborers or clerical workers. Also, those enrolled in basic skills training were distributed equally across all education levels.

Where adults learn their skills

Not surprisingly, most workers reported that basic prose reading ability was learned at school or at home, not at work. But other literacy abilities, some respondents said, were learned mainly at work, and some interesting patterns were evident in the data. For example, people with lower education levels more often said that they learned how to manipulate documents, graphs, and tables primarily at work, perhaps because they had limited exposure to them at school or at home. People with higher education levels tended to report that they learned to write at work, suggesting either that they are asked to write more at work and thus learn from the experience or that they are offered more actual instructional opportunities to improve their writing at work.

The National Adult Literacy Survey confirms a picture of workers with widely varying literacy proficiencies and a workplace with literacy demands for most workers. The data should be helpful for those planning literacy instruction in workplace settings.

Back to top

If there is one simple message about education and literacy revealed by the National Adult Literacy Survey, it is that education matters. Formal education correlates strongly with higher literacy abilities at all levels and among all groups. Such correlations do not prove that education causes higher literacy abilities, but anyone who thinks that formal education only functions to hand out credentials, or that schools are failing to make a difference in people’s actual functional skills, must reckon with these data. They show substantial literacy gains at every increasing level of formal schooling among all groups, including males and females, different racial/ethnic groups, and different age groups.

The literacy problem is complex, however, and no simple message is very helpful. The results also contain many double messages about the relationship between literacy and education. First, there are always a substantial number of individuals who defy such relationships, and policymakers must keep these exceptions in mind. There are people with a high level of educational attainment and low literacy skills, and vice versa. There are high school noncompleters with average literacy skills, and executives with minimal literacy skills. Second, the association of formal schooling with higher literacy skills is attributable partially to other factors, such as high parental education or high economic status. People with various advantages also tend to get a lot of education. Thus, the answer to the literacy problem in the United States will never be simply more education for everyone. Third, not all groups gain equal benefit from more education, whether measured in terms of literacy proficiency or other cognitive outcomes. In particular, there is a relationship not only between race/ethnicity and educational attainment, but also between race/ethnicity and literacy proficiency at a given education level. Thus, policymakers must look at how formal education operates for different groups, as well as at factors beyond the schools that influence the acquisition of literacy abilities.

In summary, the National Adult Literacy Survey reinforces traditional notions about the importance of formal schooling but shows us a world in which formal schooling is enmeshed in social, familial, and economic contexts that also influence the attainment and uses of literacy.

Table B.—Percentages at each level on the prose literacy scale and average prose proficiencies, by sex, race/ethnicity, education level, employment status, and literacy practices: 1992
Table B.- Percentages at each level on the prose literacy scale and average prose proficiencies, by sex, race/ethnicity, education level, employment status, and literacy practices: 1992

#Too small to report.

: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Adult Literacy Survey, 1992. (Originally published as table 4.1 on p. 77 of the complete report from which this article is excerpted.)

Back to top 

Kirsch, I.S., Jungeblut, A., Jenkins, L., and Kolstad, A. (1993). Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Results of the National Adult Literacy Survey (NCES 93-275) . U.S Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Data source: The 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey.

For technical information, see the complete report:

Kaestle, C.F., Campbell, A., Finn, J.D., Johnson, S.T., and Mikulecky, L.J. (2001). Adult Literacy and Education in America (NCES 2001-534).

Author affiliations: C.F. Kaestle, Brown University; A. Campbell, Diné College; J.D. Finn, SUNY-Buffalo; S.T. Johnson, Howard University; L.J. Mikulecky, Indiana University.

For questions about content, contact Andrew J. Kolstad (

To obtain the complete report (NCES 2001-534), call the toll-free ED Pubs number (877-433-7827) or visit the NCES Web Site (

Back to top