Literacy and Numeracy Skills of U.S. Adults

Literacy and Numeracy Skills of U.S. Adults

The most recent study of literacy and numeracy skills among U.S. adults is the Survey of Adult Skills conducted through the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a project of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). According to the OECD PIAAC website, “the Survey measures adults’ proficiency in key information-processing skills–literacy, numeracy and problem solving–and gathers information and data on how adults use their skills at home, at work and in the wider community.”

In the United States, the Survey of Adult Skills was initially conducted in 2012, and a second round of data collection was done in 2017. The U.S. data is managed by the National Center for Education Statistics.

What the survey data shows

Literacy

The Survey reports literacy on a six-level scale, from Below Level 1 to Level 5. Overall, as of 2017, 19 percent of U.S. adults ages 16 to 65 scored at Level 1 or Below Level 1, and 33 percent scored at Level 2.

Source: https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/current_results.asp
  • Those at Level 1 have a basic sight vocabulary and can read short texts on familiar topics to locate a single piece of information.
  • Those at Level 2 can read paragraph-length texts, compare information from the text with what is already known, and draw straightforward inferences.
  • Read the full descriptions for the six literacy levels.


In addition, major disparities emerge when additional factors are taken into account.

  • Race/ethnicity: In 2017, 36 percent of Black respondents and 31 percent of Hispanic respondents scored at Level 1 or below in literacy, versus 12 percent of White respondents
  • Nativity: In 2017, 33 percent of those born outside the United States scored at Level 1 or below in literacy, versus 16 percent of those born within the United States
  • Self-reported health status: In 2017, 31 percent of those reporting fair or poor health scored at Level 1 or below in literacy, versus 13 percent of those reporting excellent or very good health
  • View all comparative data
  • View the Skills Map for state and county-level data on adult literacy

Numeracy

The Survey reports numeracy on a six-level scale, from Below Level 1 to Level 5. Overall, as of 2017, 29 percent of U.S. adults ages 16 to 65 scored at Level 1 or Below Level 1, and 33 percent scored at Level 2.

Source: https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/current_results.asp
  • Those at Level 1 can complete simple processes involving counting, sorting, performing basic arithmetic operations, and understanding simple percents such as 50%.
  • Those at Level 2 can complete two or more steps or processes involving calculation with whole numbers and common decimals, percents and fractions; simple measurement and spatial representation; estimation; and interpretation of relatively simple data and statistics in texts, tables and graphs.
  • Read the full descriptions for the six numeracy levels.

As with literacy, major disparities emerge when additional factors are taken into account.

  • Race/ethnicity: In 2017, 56 percent of Black respondents and 45 percent of Hispanic respondents scored at Level 1 or below in numeracy, versus 20 percent of White respondents
  • Nativity: In 2017, 39 percent of those born outside the United States scored at Level 1 or below in numeracy, versus 27 percent of those born within the United States
  • Self-reported health status: In 2017, 44 percent of those reporting fair or poor health scored at Level 1 or below in numeracy, versus 23 percent of those reporting excellent or very good health
  • View all comparative data
  • View the Skills Map for state and county-level data on adult numeracy
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