The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

January 9, 2009

State adult literacy rates improve

Gaps persist between rural, urban counties

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s adult literacy rates have improved since the early 1990s, but big gaps still exist between rural and urban counties, leaving some residents without the most basic skill required for success in the 21st century.

The National Center for Education Statistics released a report Thursday that for the first time provides detailed estimates by state and county of the percentage of adults who lack basic prose literacy skills.

The center, part of the U.S. Department of Education, defines prose literacy as the ability to read material arranged in sentences and paragraphs, like newspaper articles, brochures or even the instructions for over-the-counter medicine.

“If you can’t read, you won’t be able to hold down a job,” said Susan Hayden, adult services consultant for the West Virginia Library Commission. “Can you help your children with their homework? Can you even read the instructions on a bottle of aspirin? Reading affects your whole life.”

The report estimates that about 13 percent of adult West Virginians lack basic prose literacy skills, putting the state roughly in the middle of the pack. Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Dakota fared best, each with 6 percent of adults lacking basic literacy, while California ranks highest at 23 percent.

The high numbers in states like California, Florida and New York are partly due to adults who couldn’t take the assessment test in either English or Spanish, speaking another language instead.

The study was produced by combining data from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which tested more than 19,000 Americans, with “predictor variables” like education and income from the 2000 Census. The combination enabled the center to establish a model by which it estimated literacy rates in each county and state.

The data, though, would be more valuable if it was broken out by age groups, said Judy Azulay, state director of Literacy West Virginia, which provides training and resources to adult literacy programs throughout the state.

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