Eight years ago, a national survey on adult literacy  offered data on the extent to which Americans -- even those with college credentials -- were declining in their proficiency to do the basic kinds of reading people use in everyday life. The finding, published just as President Bush and his education secretary, Margaret Spellings, were cranking up a national commission on the state of higher education, was often cited as evidence of the failings of colleges and universities.
A study released today  could have a similar effect, because it not only questions Americans' literacy, but also taps into concerns in some quarters about the country's declining standing in the world.
The Survey of Adult Skills by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that despite having higher than average levels of educational attainment, adults in the United States have below-average basic literacy and numeracy skills.
The U.S. ranked 16th out of 23 countries in literacy proficiency, 21st in numeracy proficiency, and 14th in problem solving in technology-rich environments, according to the OECD survey.
“It’s a worrisome result and it’s another reminder that we are not doing our job when it comes to education here, particularly with adults,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst for the education policy program at New America Foundation.
One in six adults in the U.S. scored below level two of five total levels for literacy skills, while about 12 percent scored at the highest level. In numeracy, nearly one in three adults scored at low-proficiency levels and about 8 percent had a high proficiency level. About one in three adults scored at the lowest level of proficiency for problem solving in technology-rich environments, and about the same percent of adults scored in the second level of proficiency.
The U.S. scored below average in all three of the skills measured in a survey of 24 countries and sub-national regions. The first Survey of Adult Skills assessed three skills sets among those ages 16 to 65: literacy (decoding written words and sentences and comprehending, interpreting and evaluating complex texts), numeracy (solving problems about math context presented in multiple ways) and problem solving in technology-rich environments (solving personal, civic or work problems by using a computer).
Black and Hispanic adults in the United States are three to four times more likely to have poor skills than white adults, according to an OECD analysis. About 35 percent of black adults and 43 percent of Hispanic adults score low in literacy, compared to 10 percent of white adults. In numeracy, 59 percent of black adults and 56 percent of Hispanic adults score low, compared to 19 percent of white adults.
The report found that socioeconomic background has a stronger impact on proficiency levels in the U.S. than in other countries. The association is weaker among 16- to 20-year-olds, which could reflect more equity in the education system or the delayed impact of parents’ education.
Education experts agree the report is a stark reminder of the state of American education and should prompt a reexamination of how adult education and developmental education are delivered.
The survey notes that participation in adult education and training, which ranges from basic literacy programs to university education, is more common in the United States than in other countries.
Workforce education programs could offer more basic education skills, said Joanne Kantner, dean of adult education and transition programs at Kishwaukee College, in Illinois. More communication is needed between those who work at adult education and developmental education programs and those who work at career and technical schools to ensure that students graduating from any program are in a position to fill skilled jobs, she said.
"This isn't an adult education problem, a math education problem, a developmental education problem or a work place issue," she said. "The math adults need is not determined by adult education. It's determined by the work place."
Grover Whitehurst, director at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute, played down the survey as an international measure, pointing to a small number of participating countries and a small U.S. sample size of 5,000 adults.
The results, however, are consistent with previous findings on adult literacy, which indicate a large number of Americans have lower than proficient literacy and numeracy skills. Because there are no similar studies of adult literacy conducted annually, it is hard to draw a trend line, Whitehurst said.
Though the United States has focused on increasing high school completion rates, the level of achievement has not risen proportionally, said Carol Schneider, president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She said the report illustrates a need for the Common Core standards in K-12 education. Colleges and universities can support a call to focus public policy on the issue of raising students’ proficiency levels in K-12 education, she added.
But, with such a large number of adults reporting low levels of basic skills, colleges should be doing more to address the issue, rather than passing the responsibility to public education, McCarthy said.
“It’s higher education's problem whether they want it to be or not,” she said.
David S. Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges, acknowledged that "insofar as community colleges are at the intersection of adult education and the work force skills that are needed, I would say that we have an essential role in redressing this situation."
But that will be difficult, he said, given the lack of a "meaningful or effective national policy for adult education," especially compared to the approach to higher education.