February 27, 2007 12:28 ET

ETS Study Reports on U.S. Adult-Education Activities

PRINCETON, NJ -- (MARKET WIRE) -- February 27, 2007 -- A new report from ETS provides a comprehensive picture of federally supported adult-education activities in the United States. It also makes a case for examining the survey data within today's economic landscape, where those with below-average skills find it increasingly more difficult to earn above-average wages in a global economy.

ETS's Center for Global Assessment produced the report, "Adult Education in America: A First Look at Results from the Adult Education Program and Learner Surveys." Authors Irwin Kirsch, Marylou Lennon and Kentaro Yamamoto of ETS and Claudia Tamassia of the University of Illinois present data from the Adult Education Program Survey (AEPS), which includes data from more than 6,000 adult learners at 1,200 adult-education programs nationwide.

Data from the AEPS show that, overall, participants in adult-education programs have literacy and numeracy skills that are significantly below those of the general population. While this makes sense on one level, it is still surprising, considering that a large proportion of these adult learners demonstrated skills in the lowest level of the proficiency scales. The ETS report suggests that this information has important implications for adult education, in terms of the investment of resources required to assist these learners in developing needed skills.

"The challenges for adult-education programs and the learners they serve are more complex than ever before," Tamassia says. "In a changing America, the skills that participants in adult-education programs do or do not develop have increasingly important implications in terms of learners' workforce participation, long-term self-sufficiency, acculturation, and citizenship. In addition to obtaining and succeeding in a job, literacy and numeracy skills are associated with the likelihood that individuals will participate in lifelong learning, keep abreast of social and political events, and vote in state and national elections.

"These data also suggest that literacy is likely to be one of the major pathways linking education and health, and may be a contributing factor to the disparities that have been observed in the quality of health care in developed countries," continues Tamassia.

Another topic highlighted in the ETS report is the central role that English-language learning plays in adult education. The AEPS data show that English as a Second Language (ESL) represents the largest type of instructional program in adult education. In fact, about half of all participants in adult-education programs reported that English was not their native language -- more than three times as many as the general adult population.

"Not surprisingly, the results showed that Spanish-speaking Hispanic learners demonstrated somewhat higher-than-average literacy skills in Spanish than in English," explains Kirsch. "However, it was also clear that allowing for language differences did not eradicate differences in literacy performance. The skill levels of learners who were tested in Spanish were similar to the levels of literacy shown by English-speaking adults enrolled in adult-education programs. Those skills levels, in general, fell well below those of the general adult population.

"ESL classes and the learners they serve face the dual challenge of improving not just English-language skills, but literacy skills as well," Kirsch adds. "And one would expect that this challenge will continue to grow, as U.S. Census Bureau projections show net international migration likely to account for more than half of our nation's population growth between 2000 and 2015."

The AEPS is significant in several ways:

--  It is the first nationally representative study of both adult-
    education programs and learners, using comparable measures to assess the
    literacy and numeracy skills of adult-education participants.
--  It is the first survey that allows comparisons to be drawn between the
    skills of the adult-learner population and of the general adult population
    in the United States.
--  It is the first time a large-scale measure of literacy skills was
    conducted in both Spanish and English to explore the impact of testing
    language on performance.
"Adult Education in America" presents data from both AEPS' program and learner surveys. Programs are profiled according to their general characteristics (including size, in terms of annual budget, numbers of programs, sites and participants), the types of learners enrolled, the characteristics of program staff, the types and uses of assessments, and the uses of technology. Learners are profiled according to general background characteristics, as well as skill levels in prose literacy, document literacy, and numeracy.

The report also compares the adult-learner and general-household populations by their demographic and background characteristics, as well as by their literacy and numeracy skills. A final chapter focuses on Hispanic learners and compares their performance on English and Spanish versions of literacy tasks in the learner survey.

"Given the social and economic stakes involved, one might reasonably argue that adult-education programs have a more critical role to play in today's society than ever before," says co-author Lennon. "While not a policy paper, the national data presented in this report are intended both to inform and to contribute to the national dialogue about adult education."

Download the full report of "Adult Education in America: A First Look at Results from the Adult Education Program and Learner Surveys" at or purchase a copy for $19.95 by writing to the Center for Global Assessment, ETS, MS 02-R, Rosedale Road, Princeton, N.J., 08541-0001.

In addition to the report itself, an online interactive data tool is also available, providing users with full access to the data analyzed. Data from the international household survey Adult Literacy and Life Skills are also available at this Web site for comparison purposes.


ETS is a nonprofit institution with the mission to advance quality and equity in education by providing fair and valid assessments, research, and related services for all people worldwide. In serving individuals, educational institutions and government agencies around the world, ETS customizes solutions to meet the need for teacher professional-development products and services, classroom and end-of-course assessments, and research-based teaching and learning tools. Founded in 1947, ETS today develops, administers and scores more than 24 million tests annually in more than 180 countries, at over 9,000 locations worldwide. Additional information is available at

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