According to a meme recently shared with the Snopes newsroom, more than half of people living in the United States between the ages of 16 and 74 read below a sixth-grade level:
We investigated this statistic, as well as the assertion that the U.S. ranks 125th for literacy when compared with other nations around the world. Though both statements are true to some degree, we took a closer look at the data — and how it was compiled — to gain a more thorough understanding of the limitations associated with conducting such wide-scale, generalizing studies.
Do More Than Half of Americans Read Below a 6th-Grade Level?
This claim is true, according to a review of the U.S. education system that was conducted in September 2020. Let’s explore.
A Gallup analysis published in March 2020 looked at data collected by the U.S. Department of Education in 2012, 2014, and 2017. It found that 130 million adults in the country have low literacy skills, meaning that more than half (54%) of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level, according to a piece published in 2022 by APM Research Lab.
The 2020 Gallup estimates were part of an economic analysis that used literacy rates to determine missed and potential financial gains. It was based on data from an international assessment of adult skills called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and the U.S. Department of Education. The analysis combined individual PIAAC data from 2012 to 2017 to create and publish estimated literacy levels for every county in the U.S.
“The U.S. Department of Education combined assessment data from three sample waves (2012, 2014 and 2017), using data from 12,330 respondents living in 185 counties. The research team then modelled the literacy scores, which means they gathered a large amount of data about each respondent and his or her county to predict that respondent’s literacy score,” read the report.
As the U.S. Department of Education research team said, the PIAAC county and state estimates can be described as “predictions of how the adults in a state or county would have performed had they been administered the PIAAC assessment.” But because each county is different, it is possible that some counties could perform better or worse on the PIACC exam if a representative sample took it. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that the 54% figure has changed — either for better or worse — in the two years since it was published.
Does the US Rank 125th for Literacy?
We’d also like to briefly address the second part of the claim, which states that the U.S. ranks 125th globally for literacy. Though this statistic is technically true, there are some important caveats that we’d like to note about gathering and analyzing global data sets.
"Literacy rate" is defined by UNESCO Institute for Statistics as “the percentage of the population of a given age group that can read and write.” An August 2019 report in a journal article published by the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education (IMSE) noted that the U.S. ranked 125th for literacy.
Data published by the geographic data and statistics website World Atlas confirmed that the U.S. was ranked 125th with a literacy rate of 86%, just after Oman and just before the Syian Arab Republic. Top countries, by comparison, included Andorra, Luxembourg, Norway, and Liechtenstein with literacy rates of virtually 100%.
But there are limitations associated with how such data is collected that may skew results. For example, methodologies for collecting data vary by country and there is not a procedure to standardize the information.
“Some countries apply definitions and criteria for literacy which are different from the international standards, or equate persons with no schooling to illiterates, or change definitions between censuses,” wrote UNESCO.
“Some assessments of literacy may also rely on self-reporting, possibly reducing accuracy. In countries where nearly all individuals have completed basic education, the literacy rate provides limited information on the variance of literacy skills in the population.”
For example, some countries may require a simple survey response, but only people who are able to receive and read survey correspondence would be able to appropriately respond, creating what’s known as non-response bias. A person living in poverty without access to an online survey, or the means to receive a mailed survey, may not be reflected in the data. On top of this, a person who cannot read would also not be able to respond without the help of another person.
There are other limitations in the collection of global data outlined by the scientific online publication Our World in Data, including that self-reports are subjective, that sometimes only one individual will report the literacy on behalf of the entire household, and that inferring literacy from data can be problematic — school measurements are not uniform across the world, and in some instances, definitions of what “literacy” means depends on who's being asked
None of this is to say that the United States education system is not fraught with its own challenges, including literacy levels. This is simply a reminder to always read data with a critical eye.
“How Is Literacy Measured?” Our World in Data, https://ourworldindata.org/how-is-literacy-measured. Accessed 2 Aug. 2022.
“Illiteracy Is Costing America — Here’s Why.” USA TODAY, https://www.usatoday.com/story/sponsor-story/lexia-learning2022/2022/03/02/illiteracy-costing-america-heres-why/6848450001/. Accessed 2 Aug. 2022.
“List of Countries By Literacy Rate.” WorldAtlas, 12 Aug. 2020, https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-highest-literacy-rates-in-the-world.html.
Literacy Rate. 22 June 2020, https://uis.unesco.org/en/glossary-term/literacy-rate.
Nonresponse Bias - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/nursing-and-health-professions/nonresponse-bias#:~:text=Non%2Dresponse%20bias%20can%20occur,different%20from%20those%20who%20participate. Accessed 2 Aug. 2022.
OECD. OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills. OECD, 2013. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264204256-en.
PIAAC. https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/state-county-estimates.asp#4. Accessed 2 Aug. 2022.
“Reading the Numbers: 130 Million American Adults Have Low Literacy Skills.” APM Research Lab, https://www.apmresearchlab.org/10x-adult-literacy. Accessed 2 Aug. 2022.