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Adult literacy in the United States has remained stagnant based on the most recent surveys, fielded in 2012, 2014, and 2017. Overall average scores for adults were “not measurably different in literacy,” between these years according to adult competency survey results.

This recurring survey, called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), measures the competency of working-age adults ages 16–65 in three areas: literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving.

How many people in the US have low levels of literacy?

Twenty-one percent, or 43 million US adults, find it difficult to compare and contrast information, paraphrase, or make low-level inferences, and, according to the PIAAC survey, have low literacy skills.

The survey defines literacy as “understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written text to participate in the society, to achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential.” All US PIAAC literacy results are for English literacy.

The scores are based on the amount of points a respondent gets from completing tasks of increasing difficulty. The more tasks respondents can complete at a higher difficulty level, the higher literacy score they receive.

There are six levels of literacy in the PIAAC scoring system, ranging from below level one to level five.

PIAAC literacy discrete proficiency levels
Below level 1 (0–175 points) Respondents are considered functionally illiterate, or unable to determine the meaning of sentences.
Level 1 (176–225 points) Respondents are considered to have low literacy levels. They can identify basic vocabulary words and can determine meaning within sentences and paragraphs.
Level 2 (226–275 points) Respondents can paraphrase or make low-level inferences.
Level 3 (276–325 points) Respondents can evaluate information at varying levels of inference, determine meaning from larger selections of text, and disregard information that’s irrelevant to the prompt.
Level 4 (326–375 points) Respondents are more likely to use background knowledge to complete tasks, apply non-central or conditional information to evaluations, and discern correct information from competing information.
Level 5 (376–500 points) Respondents can evaluate arguments, process dense texts, apply logical reasoning to draw conclusions, and determine whether certain sources are valid sources of information.

Seventy-nine percent of respondents have English literacy skills “sufficient to complete tasks that require comparing and contrasting information, paraphrasing, or making low-level inferences — literacy skills at level two or above,” according to the survey.

White, US-born adults are the largest group of those with low literacy skills, making up 35% of low-skilled adults, followed by Hispanic adults, at 34%, most of whom, in this low-literacy group, are born outside of the US.

Of the adults with low literacy skills, most (66%) were born in the US, while 34% of adults with low literacy skills were born elsewhere. However, foreign-born adults make up 15% of the US population, meaning this group is overrepresented in having low literacy skills compared to the general population.

34% of adults with low literacy skills were born outside the US.

What is the literacy rate by state and county in the US?

The interactive PIAAC skills map provides literacy and numeracy scores by state and county. The data can be filtered further by age group, education, and literacy level, along with what percentage of a county’s population falls into each level of literacy.

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The national average literacy score is 264. Minnesota and New Hampshire have the highest scores, both at 279. The states scoring lowest are Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico at 252.

Schools and other government organizations often use the survey’s results and skills map to create adult literacy programs and initiatives. One example is the Houston Mayor’s Office for Adult Literacy, which used the PIAAC skills map to inform the city’s Adult Literacy Blueprint.

The Kentucky Career and Technical College System used the PIAAC data in an app to identify education levels by county and inform future workforce planning, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The US literacy rate compared to other OECD countries

While the NCES conducts the PIAAC in the US, the OECD helped develop the survey and has collected international literacy data from 39 countries. The US literacy score between 2012–15 was 272 — right above the international average of 267. Other countries in this realm include Denmark at 271, and Canada, Korea, and England at 273. The two highest-scoring countries were Japan at 296 and Finland at 288.

The next round of PIAAC data collection kicked off in September 2022. The findings are scheduled for release in December 2024.

Where does this data come from?

The purpose of the PIAAC is to measure the cognitive skills people need to participate in society and contribute to the economy. It was created by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international organization that leads comparative socioeconomic research and analysis to advise its 38 member nations (the US is a founding member). Local governments and organizations use findings from its literacy survey and its skills map to support efforts to improve adult literacy in their communities.

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Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies