Nearly one in four Baltimore adults and one in five adults in Maryland cannot read well enough to function adequately in everyday life, according to a recently released national study.
In the Baltimore region, Carroll and Howard counties demonstrated the strongest literacy skills: Barely 10 percent and 11 percent of adults there, respectively, had low literacy skills.
The new data, compiled by the Washington-based National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), are the most thorough set of literacy estimates ever compiled, according to researchers and experts in the field.
The study breaks down the nationwide data by state, congressional district, county, city and town.
"This report, especially the local data, should make a very compelling case to policy-makers by bringing the data into their back yard," said Carolyn Staley, deputy director of NIFL. "It says, 'See, this is how we look. Now what are we going to do about it?' "
Said Maggi Gaines, head of Baltimore Reads Inc.: "I think it's a wonderfully useful tool. Was I surprised by these numbers? No. I think they're pretty real. When you break them down by county and congressional district, it's very disturbing."
In Anne Arundel County, 14 percent of residents were estimated to have low literacy; in Baltimore County, 16 percent; in Harford, 12 percent.
Nationally, 21 percent to 23 percent of Americans older than age 16 -- 40 million to 44 million -- can read but struggle with more complex writing and comprehension.
The NIFL numbers are researchers' best estimates based on data from the 1990 census and from a 1992 literacy survey of about 26,000 Americans, said Stephen Reder, who headed the study. He is a professor of applied linguistics at Portland State University in Oregon.
After years of numbers-crunching, Reder compiled a list of characteristics that tend to predict literacy, among them income, education, English-speaking skills and race. He then applied those predictors to each jurisdiction in the country.
People with low literacy often have reading skills strong enough to decipher road signs and basic instructions, researchers say.
But they often have problems with such tasks as figuring out a table of employee benefits and locating an intersection on a street map.
"Low literacy really is the problem," Staley said. "People can read a paragraph but if you ask them to go beyond that, if it gets into a very involved interpretation of, say, a child's report card or a bank statement, it doesn't get dealt with.
"We can't just let adults fall off the page and let natural attrition take care of the literacy problem," she said. "Because there need to be adults in the home to help children check spelling and perpetuate good literacy. Otherwise, the cycle continues."
Although the numbers seem to correlate with those compiled in some local areas, some experts question estimates based on such broad categories.
"If you're skeptical about this, you're absolutely correct," said Richard Ramberg, head of adult education for Frederick County, where 20 percent of adults were shown to have low literacy. "It's virtually impossible to define literacy in some kind of quantifiable way. It's all relative."
Janet K. Carsetti, head of the Maryland State Literacy Coalition, said extrapolating statistics from general trends is dangerous -- and, particularly regarding race and class assumptions, politically incorrect.
Some experts questioned the reliability of numbers compiled several years ago. In Baltimore, such numbers likely would not reflect a fast-growing immigrant population or pockets of middle-class residents in the city.
The definition of literacy changes every few years, said Chris Hopey, associate director of the National Center for Adult Literacy at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Literacy is a moving target -- the definition is always changing," Hopey said. "Today, reading skills need to be better because of technology. We have to assimilate so much more information. From that standpoint, what does this study say?"
Reder acknowledged that the data are limited.
"I think these numbers give you a good relative indication of where the problems are larger or smaller," he said. "But this is not interpretive information, it's distributional -- the question still remains, what does this mean?"
Pub Date: 5/03/98