National Assessment of Adult Literacy: Indirect County and State Estimates of the Percentage of Adults at the Lowest Literacy Level for 1992 and 2003

Suzannah Herrmann, Ph.D.

L. Mohadjer, G. Kalton, T. Krenzke, B. Liu, W. Van de Kerck, L. Li, D. Sherman, J. Dillman, J. Rao
National Center for Education Statistics
January 2009

This report combines the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) and the 1999 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) to create a database of indirect estimates on the number of adults who lack "basic prose literacy skills" (BPLS) on the state and county level. NAAL and NALS each surveyed about 20,000 adults over the age of 16. Adults who lack these skills either can't read or understand any written English or can only locate basic information in short prose but nothing more. What does that mean? As USA Today put it, these adults would find it difficult "to read anything more challenging than a children's book or to understand a medicine's side effects listed on a pill bottle." An estimated 32 million fall into this category--or 1 in 7 adults. And this population is growing at an alarming rate. Between 1992 and 2003, the American population grew by 23 million; 3.6 million of those--16 percent--were lacking BPLS. While the report itself is mostly mind-numbing technical background, it is accompanied by a worthwhile and easy to use website that allows viewers to compare literacy rates by state and county.