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IALS Results

Results from the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), which measured proficiency on 3 scales (prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy), showed:

  • Between 19 and 23 percent of U.S. adults performed at levels 4 and 5, the highest levels, on the three literacy scales. On all three scales, only Sweden had higher percentages of their adults at these levels.
  • Nearly one-third of adults in the United States demonstrate level 3 skills across all three scales, while approximately one-fourth of American adults possess level 2 skills across the three scales.
  • Between 21 and 24 percent of U.S. adults performed at level 1, the lowest level, on the three literacy scales.
  • On average, the United States outperformed 2 nations (German-speaking Switzerland and Poland) on the prose scale, performed similarly to 7 nations (Canada, Germany, Australia, Belgium, United Kingdom, Ireland and French-speaking Switzerland), and was outperformed by 3 nations (Sweden, Netherlands and New Zealand).
  • On both the document and quantitative scales, the United States outperformed one nation (Poland), performed similarly to 8 nations (Canada, Belgium, French-speaking Switzerland, Australia, German-speaking Switzerland, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Ireland), and was outperformed by 3 nations (Sweden, Netherlands and Germany).
  • The United States is similar to Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom with regard to the distribution of literacy skills across levels 1, 2 and 3. At level 4/5, however, Canada has a greater percentage of people than the United States on the prose scale; New Zealand has a higher percentage than the United States on the document scale; and the United Kingdom has a higher percentage of its adults than the United States on the quantitative scale.
  • In terms of literacy skills and employment status, 59 percent of U.S. adults at level 1 on the document literacy scale were employed at the time of the study. This percentage was not significantly different from the percentage at level 2 (71 percent), but significantly lower than those at levels 3 (77 percent) and 4/5 (82 percent).

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. Adult Literacy: An International Perspective, Working Paper No. 97-33 , by Marilyn Binkley, Nancy Matheson, and Trevor Williams. Washington, DC: 1997.