A recent Census Bureau report that put the number of illiterate English-speaking adults at 13 percent of the U.S. population has come under sharp criticism from individuals and groups working in the field.
The critics say that the report, based on a 1982 test of 3,400 adults, is scientifically unsound and more a judgment of whether adults can understand "bureaucratise."
One question, for example, asks test-takers to decipher this paragraph:
"You may request a review of the decision made on the application or recertification for assistance and may request a fair hearing concerning any action affecting receipt or termination of assistance."
Alan Ginsburg, the Education Department's director of planning and evaluation, whose office commissioned the survey, said the questions were designed "to see if people can follow instructions," such as those on application forms for a driver's license or Social Security card. The ability to fill out such forms is one definition of "functional" literacy, he said.
"Several of the questions are, in fact, worded in terms of how our bureaucracy communicates with people," said Mike Fox, executive director of Push Literacy Action Now (PLAN).
"It's a very arbitrary decision as to how that 13 percent figure was reached," said Jeannette Fleischer, a spokeswoman for the Literacy Volunteers of America. She said the test questions were "very bureaucratic and not necessarily culturally neutral."
Critics of the Census Bureau report, however, are divided over whether the estimate of 13 percent illiteracy exaggerates or understates the problem in America.
The disagreement demonstrates the difficulty in estimating the number of illiterate Americans, and it highlights a debate that has split like-minded groups working to teach adults to read. Counting illiterate Americans is something of a guessing game, the experts say, and the number chosen usually depends on how "illiterate" is defined.
"These are disreputable statistics, shaving the numbers in order to protect the Reagan administration, which is cutting the funding for illiteracy programs," said Jonathan Kozol, author of "Illiterate America."
"I think this is a purposeful misuse of numbers in order to deny the existence of an entire group of people that this administration holds in apparent contempt," Kozol said. "Why else would this report be issued now? Why save 1982 numbers until the moment at which illiteracy has become a front-burner issue?"
Kozol has written that there are about 60 million illiterate adults in America, but he places literacy at a relatively high threshold -- such as the ability to read and understand the Bill of Rights.
The critics also called "arbitrary" the Census Bureau's use of a cutoff score to determine illiteracy. The test asked 26 questions. A test-taker who answered 21 or more questions correctly was considered literate. One problem, the critics said, was that if test-takers did not answer a question, it in effect counted against them.
Ginsburg said it was a "reasonable assumption" that a test-taker who left a question blank did not know the answer. He said the cutoff was justified because most people with a college education passed that mark and people with less than a sixth-grade education generally could not score that high.
Ginsburg added that because older people have a higher illiteracy rate, the four-year-old test results probably overstate the scope of the literacy problem, which he said may be lessening.
The Census Bureau report concluded that 17 million to 21 million U.S. adults over age 20 are illiterate.