Better educated but less literate

Degree not always guarantee of skills


More Americans are getting college degrees than they did about a decade ago, but skills in reading and analyzing data among the well-educated have dropped significantly, according to a national report on literacy released yesterday.

When adults with higher-education degrees were asked to compare the viewpoints in two newspaper editorials, for example, or to interpret a table about blood pressure, fewer than half could do it successfully.

"I think these results are really unexpected," said Mark Schneider, the U.S. commissioner of education statistics. A former university professor, Schneider was particularly concerned about the results.

"I think it is a wake-up call to the research and university community," he said. He expects that further analysis of the data will show whether the decline in high-level skills in the college-educated population is among recent graduates or those who have been out of school five or 10 years.

One positive finding of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy was that African-Americans are making significant gains in reading and math and that blacks as a whole are reaching higher levels of education. For instance, the report showed that the average rate of prose literacy, or reading, among blacks rose 6 percentage points since 1992.

"It is actually one of the really strong pieces of evidence in the report that we should be celebrating," Schneider said.

The survey, done in 2003 by the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, interviewed 19,000 people age 16 or older in their homes, in much the same way the census is conducted. They were asked to read prose, do math and find facts in documents.

The study was designed to assess not whether people can read a novel, but whether they are competent in the skills they need to be productive citizens. Participants were asked, for instance, to add numbers on a bank slip, identify a place on a map or read directions for taking a medication.

Among adults who have taken graduate courses or have graduate degrees, only 41 percent scored as proficient, compared with 51 percent a decade ago.

Proficiency was measured by the ability to read lengthy, complex abstract texts and analyze information in documents.

Participants' performance was scored as below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient. Below basic included people who were not literate.

Schneider, who presented the results in Washington, D.C., said he was unsure what caused the decline in skills among people with higher-education degrees.

Many state universities, he said, now have open admissions policies that accept almost all high school graduates, including those who might not be as well prepared as their peers were decades earlier. In addition, colleges and universities are taking in a more diverse population that might have language or cultural challenges. Or, he said, colleges "may not be doing the job as effectively as they could be."

The report showed that overall, adults can read about as well as they could in 1992 when the last survey was done but that they are better at math. The report says that one in 20 Americans is not literate and that 29 percent of the population has only basic reading and computing skills. That 29 percent had the skills to use a television guide to find out what time a program aired and to read a pamphlet for prospective jurors that explained how they would be selected for a jury pool.

Marylanders scored better in nearly every category than the nation as a whole. For instance, 9 percent of Maryland adults are considered to have below-basic literacy, compared with 14 percent nationwide.

But there is still sobering news in the statistics, said Patricia Bennett, manager for adult education and literacy in Maryland. About 1.5 million adults in the state would have difficulty in some area of reading or computing.

Two decades ago, adults could more easily make a living in a manufacturing job, said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Today, they need much better reading and computing skills to earn the same amount of money. Those who are not literate make about $28,000 less per year than those who scored at the highest level, or proficient.

The population's reduced literacy skills have a negative impact on the state's economy as well, Grasmick said: Business owners say they are simply running out of workers to hire.

Among the Maryland findings was good news for African-Americans here. Black participants scored higher than other African-Americans across the nation, which Grasmick said should be credited to the emphasis in public schools here on closing a large gap between whites and minorities.

Men seem to be losing ground compared with women, whose literacy levels are on the rise. Women's average computing and math skills rose by 10 points in the decade; men's remained the same.

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