ERIC Identifier: ED334870
Publication Date: 1991-07-00
Author: Wiley, Terrence
Source: National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education Washington
Measuring the Nation's Literacy: Important Considerations.
For more than a decade, politicians, pundits, leaders of industry, and
educators have lamented the "literacy crisis" in the United States. Various
reports and surveys have been cited offering conflicting data on the extent
of illiteracy, but generally agreeing that illiteracy rates are alarmingly
high, particularly among immigrants and language minorities. In 1982, for
example, the English Language Proficiency Survey (ELPS) placed the non-literate
U.S. adult population at between 17 and 21 million; 7 million of that group
were from homes where a language other than English was spoken (U.S. Dept.
of Education, NIE, 1986; National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education,
Measures of literacy are important in many sectors of society. Employers
use literacy levels as a barometer of the capacity of individuals to participate
in an economy where literacy has been largely assumed; educators rely on
literacy data for feedback on how well programs are providing the skills
considered requisite for participation in the social, economic, and political
arenas; policy makers rely on such data to determine where, and to what
extent, educational resources are needed to promote literacy.
Attempts to measure literacy, however, have had drawbacks. We must confront
the fact that our ability to measure literacy across a large population
is limited by a lack of resources allocated to measuring literacy, by our
instruments of assessment, and by our notions of what it means to be literate.
Moreover, in the process of assessing literacy we run the risk of imposing
"elite" standards (Resnick & Resnick, 1977) on the population as a
whole and of stigmatizing those who fail to meet these standards (Wiley,
THE PROBLEM OF DEFINING LITERACY
In reporting literacy data there is a problematic tendency to dichotomize
findings by imposing a boundary between "literacy" and "illiteracy." While
some authors have suggested that literacy should be conceptualized as a
single set of skills measured along a continuum, others argue that it is
better portrayed as the ability to perform specific print-related practices
in specific social contexts, thereby implying "many literacies" rather
than one type of literacy (Heath, 1980; Scribner & Cole, 1981; Street,
1984). Unfortunately, national assessments utilizing the latter definition
are not very feasible (see also Crandall & Imel, 1991, for discussion
of definition issues).
STRENGTHS AND LIMITATIONS OF VARIOUS APPROACHES TO MEASURING LITERACY
There are three major ways of measuring literacy: self-assessments,
surrogate measures, and direct measures or tests. Self-assessed literacy,
where individuals rate their own reading and writing abilities, has been
used by the United States Census since the 1850s. It has long been popular
in national surveys in general because of its limited cost. However, since
World War I, it has been argued that the self-reported data of the census
overestimate literacy levels (Venezky, Kaestle & Sum, 1987).
In response to this concern, surrogate measures and direct measures
have been used. In the forties, the army began using grade-level completion
(initially four years and later six years) as a surrogate measure of literacy.
The major limitation of this approach is that the number of years of schooling
completed provides no guarantee of literacy skill mastery (Hunter &
Harman, 1979; Venezky, et al., 1987).
Direct testing of an individual's literacy competency is preferable
when resources permit. Surveys which have used direct measures include
the Adult Performance Level (APL), developed in the 1970s (Hunter &
Harman, 1979), the ELPS (mentioned above), and the 1985 National Assessment
of Educational Progress (NAEP) literacy survey of young adults, ages 21
to 25 (Kirsch & Jungeblut, 1986).
Many of the tasks used in direct measures of literacy and reasoning
ability are particular to a specific situation or set of situations. The
ability to complete a task specific to one situation may not transfer readily
to another. For example, school-based literacy tasks do not necessarily
carry over to work-related literacy tasks (Harste & Mikulecky, 1984;
Mikulecky, 1990). Consequently, it is misleading to generalize about literacy
in global terms beyond the specific contexts assessed. Recognizing this,
the NAEP young adult survey attempted to test literacy through simulations
of literacy tasks divided into three broad types of text and task demands:
prose, document, and quantitative. Nevertheless, the ecological (real-world)
validity of simulations may be questioned given the artificial nature of
the test or of the testing situation (see Edelsky, et al., 1983, and Erickson,
1984, for related discussions regarding school-based literacy tests).
In addition, Hunter and Harman (1979) note that the competencies selected
for testing are not negotiated with those tested, but are imposed by committees
of largely middle-class educators, raising concerns regarding how well
the literacy needs, realities, and values of the individuals tested are
understood, especially when they are language minorities. This criticism
has been leveled most strongly against one of the better-known surveys
of adult functional competency, the APL. Hunter and Harman (1979, p.19)
caution: "Who but the person or group involved can really describe what
'effective functioning in one's own cultural group' really means?" Moreover,
they note that another essential question is: "Whose needs are served by
generalized statistics about the population?" To play a positive role,
assessment should be used to determine the kinds of literacy deemed necessary,
not only by employers and educational policy makers, but also by the individuals
themselves who are targeted for programs.
CONFUSING ILLITERACY WITH NON-ENGLISH LITERACY
Regardless of the approach used to measure literacy, a major limitation
of most national assessments has been their lack of attention to literacy
in languages other than English. For the past two decades, the United States
has been undergoing its second greatest period of foreign immigration;
it now has the fourth largest Spanish-speaking population in the world
(Simon, 1988). By failing to survey Literacy in Spanish and other non-English
languages, "literacy" is confused with "English literacy" (Vargas, 1986).
For example, the often-cited ELPS (see above) measured only English literacy.
While it is true that English holds the dominant language of the United
States, it does not necessarily follow that English literacy can or should
fulfill all of the needs of language minorities (Fishman, 1980). This reduction
of literacy to English literacy appears to be related to the dominant language
attitudes in the United States, which ignore linguistic diversity and promote
the myth that this is a monolingual nation (Bhatia, 1983; Simon, 1988).
The omission of languages other than English from literacy surveys is
significant because it inflates our perception of the extent of the so-called
"literacy crisis." More seriously, it stigmatizes as illiterate many who
are literate in other languages. In educational policy making and program
planning it results in a failure to distinguish those who lack sufficient
initial literacy in their native language from those who could utilize
their native language literacy as a basis upon which to build English literacy.
To date, the 1979 National Chicano Survey (NCS) is the only nationally
representative survey that has allowed for biliteracy analysis or for non-English
language analysis. Secondary data analyses of the NCS show an overall functional
literacy rate of 74%--with 52% English literate, 42% Spanish literate,
and 22% biliterate in English and Spanish. If only English literacy had
been measured, illiteracy would have been 48%--as opposed to 26% by also
measuring Spanish literacy (Macias, 1988; Wiley, 1988).
CONFUSING LIMITED ORAL LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY IN ENGLISH WITH ILLITERACY
Lastly, with respect to language minority populations, a distinction
must be clearly drawn between English literacy and English oral language
proficiency. Vargas (1986) observes that it is often wrongly assumed that
limited oral proficiency in English "causes" English illiteracy. He adds
that there is a failure to recognize that some who are orally fluent in
English may not be English literate and that many who are English literate
may not be orally fluent in the language. Vargas concludes that the problem
of becoming literate in a second language must be differentiated from the
problem of orally learning a second language and from the problem of becoming
literate for the first time in either one's first or one's second language.
In relying on literacy data to develop informed educational policies
for schools, communities, and the workplace, we must recognize that the
three major approaches to measuring literacy provide information which
is necessarily constrained by how literacy is conceptualized and by limitations
in the allocation of resources for assessing literacy in languages other
than English. Direct measures of literacy are preferable to the other approaches,
but attention must be given to their ecological validity. In the construction
of literacy surveys and in the interpretation of literacy data, we must
also carefully consider whether we have cast our nets to catch "literacy"
or only "English literacy."
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