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Western World Plagued By Low Literacy, Report Says Use Them Or Lose Them, Says Report On Adult Mental Skills

Problems with such basic mental chores as filling out job applications, reading bus schedules and balancing checkbooks hamper nearly half of American adults, a survey suggests.

“Low literacy is a problem everywhere,” the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported Wednesday in its annual look at education.

Among 12 Western industrialized nations, Swedes scored best and Poles worst in the International Adult Literacy Survey cited in the report. There was no statistically significant difference among Americans, Australians, Belgians, Britons, Canadians, Dutch, Germans, Irish, New Zealanders and the Swiss.

Another researcher cautioned, however, that such surveys tend to overstate the problem by confronting test-takers with unfamiliar documents. Police aren’t reporting people lost because they “couldn’t find their way to Main Street,” said Richard L. Venezky, an educational psychologist at the University of Delaware.

Although the report found high levels of college among Americans, it also found some disturbing signs. High school dropout rates were high. And education wasn’t always a guarantee of literacy, defined by the researchers as the ability to read texts, understand documents such as charts, graphs and schedules, and perform arithmetic.

Moreover, the report suggests that workers who don’t use their mental skills lose them.

“What we’re discovering now is that skills are not fixed for life,” said Albert Tuijnman, the OECD’s education analyst, at a briefing in Washington.

The report urged employers and governments to promote “a literacy-rich work culture.”

The report hardly surprised Steve Sayler, personnel chief at Gear for Sports, which makes custom-printed and embroidered sweatshirts and other sportswear in Lenexa, Kan. Four-page job applications come fraught with errors.

A question about dates employed is answered with the time of the shift - 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., for example. A former stock clerk describes the job as “stalker.”

“There are questions on there that they do not answer simply because, I think, they do not understand the question,” Sayler said.

Statistics Canada and the U.S. Educational Testing Service, a private firm, did the research in 1994 and 1995, measuring people on three scales that comprise literacy: reading prose, reading documents and doing mathematics. Depending on the country, between one-quarter and three-quarters of the adults 16 to 65 surveyed failed to attain “Level 3.”

That level is considered “a suitable minimum skill level for coping with the demands of modern life and work.”

In the United States, 46 percent were below Level 3 in reading prose, 49 percent in reading documents and 46 percent in mathematics.