If we are to make all adults in the United States literate enough to compete in the international marketplace and meet their responsibilities as parents and citizens, as called for in National Education Goal 6, how many adults are we talking about? The answer is that it is difficult to say with any degree of certainty. This is because there is not a consensus in the nation on how to define literacy, and all the existing definitions are to some extent arbitrary with respect to how standards of proficiency are set. That is, people are not typically either totally literate or totally illiterate. Rather, they fall somewhere in between. So one of the problems in determining how many adults are likely to be experiencing very difficult times due to their literacy is determining how good is good enough. This problem is illustrated the context of the 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) of the United States'1, modified versions of which were also used in international surveys of adult literacy in several other industrialized nations2 (See Table 2.3, below).
The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS)
In 1993 the National Center for Education Statistics of the U. S. Department of Education reported the results of a survey of the literacy skills of adults aged 16 to over 65 living in households in the United States. Additionally, the survey studied the literacy skills of incarcerated adults.1 The National Adult Literacy Survey ( NALS) used prose, document, and quantitative scales. Literacy scores were reported using scale scores for each of the three different types of literacy task domains. These scale scores ranged from 0 to 500.
Both people and tasks (items) were given scale scores. For instance, a person with a skill level of 210 would have a probability of .80 of performing a task that has a difficulty level of 210. However, other people with lower skill levels may also be able to perform the task, though with lower probabilities. People with skill levels of 150 have a 32 percent probability of being able to perform a task that is at the 210 difficulty level. People at the 200 level have a 74 percent probability of performing the task. People at the 300 skill level have a 99 percent probability of performing the 210 difficulty level task.
The NALS Literacy Levels
The NALS was the first national survey of adult literacy skills to report data in terms of five levels of skill. The NALS literacy levels are important because they are to be used by the National Governor's Association and the federal government to track the nation's progress on Education Goal Number 6: malting all adults literate by the year 2000 3. The goal is to get adults to Level 3 in literacy proficiency..
In the NALS, the five levels used to describe categories of proficiency include Level 1 (scale scores from 0 to 225), Level 2 (scale scores from 226 to 275), Level 3 (scale scores 276 to 325), Level 4 (scale scores 326 to 375), and Level 5 (scale scores from 376 to 500). For each of the prose, document, and quantitative scales, all those adults with scores from O to 225 were assigned to Level 1, those with scores from 226 to 275 were assigned to Level 2 and so forth. Table 2.1 shows the percentage of adults assigned to each of the five literacy levels for each of the three literacy scales.