[AAACE-NLA] Puzzles From Adult Literacy Research
tsticht at znet.com
tsticht at znet.com
Mon Dec 17 16:26:31 EST 2007
December 17, 2007
Some Puzzling Findings From and For Adult Literacy Research
International Consultant in Adult Education
Over the years I have found research studies of adult literacy that seem to
raise more questions about adult literacy than they answer. Here are some
findings from studies of adult literacy from national surveys using
literacy tests that I have found puzzling.
A number of analyses of standardized and normed literacy test scores has
taken place since World War I when the first mass mental testing of adults
took place up to the present with both national and international
assessments of adult literacy. Across all this time and testing it has
repeatedly been found that literacy level is positively related to
occupational status and higher income. There are, however, some interesting
deviations from these generalities and some data that suggest complications
in interpreting these types of studies. Just how does measured literacy
ability affect adult workers in their daily lives at work?
Literacy and Occupation. In what occupations do the least literate adults
work? It turns out that 53 percent of adults who score at the lowest level
of literacy, Below Basic, on the Prose test of the 2003 National Assessment
of Adult Literacy (NAAL) occupy "white collar" occupations. This is perhaps
contrary to what might be the stereotype of low literate adults working in
farming, construction, manufacturing, maintenance and other jobs frequently
thought of as "blue collar" jobs. Indeed, on the NAAL survey, the percentage
of Below Basic adults working in Management, Business, and Financial
occupations was the same (3 percent) as those working in Farming, Fishing,
and Forestry. There were four times the percentage of Below Basic adults
working in Office and Administrative Support occupations (8 percent), which
might be considered as "literacy oriented" jobs, as in Installation,
Maintenance, and Repair occupations (2 percent) in 2003.
The greatest percentage of Below Basic adults worked in Service occupations
(30 percent), as did 16 percent of adults with Intermediate and 10 percent
with Proficient levels of Prose literacy. Of course, the category of
"Service" occupations is quite broad and could include some very low
literacy demanding jobs as well as some very high literacy demanding jobs.
Whatever the case, almost a third of the Below Basic adults have found jobs
within this occupational category which is generally thought of as one of
the fastest growing categories of work.
Literacy and Income. As a general trend, weekly earnings rise as one's
literacy skills increase. However, a high literacy level does not guarantee
higher income. In 2003 some14 percent of adults with Proficient literacy on
the Prose scale earned less than $500 a week, or about $26,000 per year. On
the other hand, low literacy does not necessarily lead to a low income. Over
35 percent of adults scoring Below Basic on the Prose scale of the NAAL
earned over $500 a week, and almost one in five earned $650 or more per
week ($33,800 per year).
Literacy and Job Opportunities. Apparently, even though adults may score
poorly on literacy tests like the NAAL, most do not think of their reading
skills as limiting their job opportunities very much. For adults scoring at
the lowest level of literacy, Below Basic, on the NAAL Prose scale, 40
percent said they thought their reading skills limited their job
opportunities "not at all," 36 percent thought their reading skills might
limit their job opportunities "some or a little," and only 25 percent
thought their reading skills limited them "a lot."
Aside from research in the military, I have found no research that looks at
how well workers having different literacy abilities actually perform
critical job tasks in various jobs within different occupational groups.
Family Literacy: Race, Ethnicity, Mothers,
and the Intergenerational Transfer of Literacy
Here are some disturbing data that I have observed over a 25 year period.
First, in 1980 the Department of Defense re-normed the ten tests comprising
the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) which all applicants
for military service have to take. The data for young adults 18 to 27 years
old showed the performance on the Armed forces Qualification Test (AFQT), a
subset of the ASVAB tests, as a function of the person's mother's education
The data broken out by race or ethnic group showed that as the mother's
education level increased from 0-8 years to 9-11 years, high school
graduate, some college, and college graduate and beyond, the young adults'
AFQT scores increased for Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. However, at all
levels of the mother's education, Whites scored better than Hispanics who
scored better than Blacks.
Further, the adult children of Black mothers with college graduation or
beyond education scored on the AFQT like the Hispanic young adults whose
mother's had between high school and some college education, and White
young adults whose mother's had between 9-11 and high school graduation
education. The young Hispanic adults whose mother's had college graduation
or plus education scored like the young White adults whose mother's had a
high school education.
Five years later, in1985, the Young Adult Literacy Survey of 21 to 25 year
olds showed similar trends. As the young adults' mother's education
increased from less than high school, to high school graduate, to beyond
high school education, test scores on the literacy survey increased for
Whites, Hispanics and Blacks. However, at all levels of education Whites
scored higher than Hispanics, who scored higher than Blacks. Blacks whose
mothers had more than high school education scored just a little above
Hispanics whose mothers had less than high school education and well below
Whites whose mothers had less than high school education. Hispanics whose
mothers had more than high school education scored like Whites whose
mothers had a high school education.
I have not found more recent data showing the intergenerational transfer of
literacy from mothers to their adult children as a function of race or
ethnicity. But it is interesting to me that on both the ASVAB and YALS
(which was the predecessor to the National Assessment of Adult
Literacy-NAAL) as mother's education increased, there was an increase
across generations that raised the literacy scores of the mother's adult
children. Why these intergenerational transfer effects of increased
mother's education occur is not clear to me. Why should the
intergenerational transfer of literacy from mothers who have completed a
four year college degree exceed that of mothers who have only a high school
education, while the latter transfer more than mothers with less than a high
school education? Why should the differences between races and ethnic groups
be maintained in the intergenerational transfer effect? I have found little
research that directly examines these relationships among race, ethnicity,
mother's education and the intergenerational transfer of literacy.
Investments in adult literacy education frequently point to the effects of
such investments on children's and workforce development. There is,
however, a dearth of research that provides detailed understandings of what
effects these investments in adult literacy education actually have on both
children's literacy development and on the job opportunities and job
productivity of adults in the workforce.
Presently, there is no national center for research on adult literacy
education that could pursue a concerted body of research to provide an
understanding of these critical relationships of adult literacy and the
literacy development of our nation's children and workforce. This seems a
serious omission in the research program of the federal government's
Institute for Education Sciences in the Department of Education.
Thomas G. Sticht.
International Consultant in Adult Education
2062 Valley View Blvd.
El Cajon, CA 92019-2059
Tel/fax: (619) 444-9133
Email: tsticht at aznet.net
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