Innumeracy - American EducationThe inability to calculate or perform arithmetic functions with numbers— a form of illiteracy. An adult literacy survey commissioned by the U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION and released in 1993 concluded that more than 40% of the 26,000 randomly selected Americans above the age of 15 suffer from innumeracy. Conducted by the Educational Testing Service, the survey purposely limited questions to practical matters that people face every day, such as filling out bank deposit slips. The study drew no conclusions about intelligence, limiting its task to assessing number skills needed for the workplace and for civic activities such as voting and jury service.
The survey used a test that had five levels of proficiency, each of whose questions were weighted according to difficulty. The survey found that more than 21% of test-takers performed at the lowest level, unable to calculate the total of a purchase or determine the difference in price between two items. Another 20% operated at the second lowest level, able to perform only a single operation using numbers clearly stated on the test, but unable to use two or more numbers to solve a problem. About 32% functioned with middle-level skills and were able to extract numbers from a text to solve a problem or explain a billing error. Fewer than 6% functioned at the next level, which required the ability to perform two or more sequential operations or a single operation in which the quantities were found in different texts. Nearly 21%, however, functioned at the highest level, requiring performance of multiple, sequential operations based on extracting materials from a text and a background knowledge of quantitative relationships.
The majority of whites scored in the three highest levels and outscored blacks, Asians and Hispanics in all three categories. A majority of Hispanic and Asian adults who scored in the lowest level were born outside the United States. Low scores of blacks were attributed to the poor quality of public schools in black areas. The survey found both that older people tended to have lower scores and that scores generally correlated directly with incomes. Those with the lowest scores earned the lowest median incomes, while those with the highest scores earned almost three times more. American industry estimates it loses between $25 billion and $35 billion a year because of lost productivity, errors and accidents attributable to innumeracy and illiteracy. Goaded by industry and dissatisfied parents, most state governments instituted minimum standards in mathematics achievement in public elementary and secondary schools. By 2005, average mathematics proficiency had improved nearly 7% among fourth graders (nine-year-olds) and 5.3% among eighth graders (13-year-olds), but innumeracy rates remained stubbornly high at 24% among fourth graders and 33% among eighth graders—a reflection in some areas, at least, of the growth in the poor, immigrant population.