ures, and tables (e.g., a bus schedule). Quantitative literacy assessed skill with using arithmetic operations on numbers presented in scenarios, texts, or documents (e.g., a product advertisement). Performance on NALS reflected both the difficulty of the tasks and the complexity of the materials.

To provide information that could more easily be understood and used by policy makers and the public, the test designers grouped scores on NALS into five performance levels. Brief descriptions of the levels were provided and the percentage of adults whose scores fell into each performance level was reported along with summary measures of the scores.

A decade later, the Department of Education implemented plans for a successor to NALS, called the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), conducted in 2003. NAAL was designed to produce some new information while retaining enough consistency with the 1992 assessment to evaluate trends over the ensuing decade. NAAL includes additional health related materials intended to yield a measure of health literacy in addition to scores in prose, document, and quantitative literacy. Two other components were added to increase the information gathered about adults with low-level English literacy skills: the Fluency Addition and the Adult Literacy Supplemental Assessment (ALSA). In preparation for release of NAAL results, the Department sought advice from the National Research Council’s Board on Testing and Assessment about developing performance levels for the assessment.


NALS was intended to describe the range of English literacy skills of adults in the United States. The performance levels used to report the 1992 results were designed as a means for communicating about adults’ literacy skills, but they were not meant to reflect policy-based judgments about expectations for adult literacy. That is, the procedures used to develop the assessment did not involve identifying the level of skills adults need in order to function adequately in society. When findings from the 1992 survey were released, however, the performance levels were interpreted and discussed as if they represented standards for the level of literacy adults should have. The lowest two levels were referred to as inadequate, so low that adults with these skills would be unable to hold a well-paying job. The results of the assessment and these sorts of unsupported inferences about the results provoked widespread controversy in the media and among experts in adult literacy about the extent of literacy problems in the country.

In response to the department’s request for advice, the Committee on Performance Levels for Adult Literacy was established and charged to:

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