Hispanic Literacy in U.S. Shows Troubling Signs

Matthew Tresaugue, Houston Chronicle, Dec. 16, 2005

An estimated 11 million U.S. adults lack the literacy skills to perform everyday tasks, while an increasing number of Hispanics struggle to do more than sign a form in English, a federal survey shows.

The U.S. Education Department reported Thursday virtually no progress over the past decade in the ability of the country’s adults to read newspapers, bus schedules and prescription labels.

But every racial and ethnic group except for Hispanics improved in tasks ranging from reading materials arranged in sentences and paragraphs, computing numbers and comprehending documents such as bills.

Forty-four percent of Hispanics, ages 16 and older, do not have basic English skills, meaning they might be unable to use a television guide to find out what programs are on at a specific time or to compare ticket prices for two events. That is a substantial increase from 36 percent a decade ago, the last time the federal government released such a comprehensive literacy study.

Overall, 14 percent of adults have English skills considered below basic.

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The National Center for Education Statistics, which is run by the Education Department, surveyed more than 19,000 adults in homes and prisons across the country to measure English literacy. The sample represents a population of about 222 million.

The study, known as the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, also found that women made gains while men declined in their skills. And literacy rates did not improve, and even dropped, across every level of education, from those with college degrees to high school dropouts.

Of those without basic English skills, more than half failed to complete high school. Their average annual salary in 2003 was $22,464, about $28,000 below those with ability to perform challenging and complex reading tasks, according to the study.

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