National adult literacy survey shows big improvements from 1992 to 2003

January 8, 2009

COLUMBIA, SC – January 8, 2009 – The percentage of South Carolina adults who lack basic literacy skills shrank by one-fourth from 1992 to 2003, according to a comprehensive survey released today by the U.S. Department of Education. 

The survey, compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, said the percentage of adults unable to read and understand written information in English improved from 20 percent to 15 percent. 

State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex said that while the improvement was encouraging, illiteracy in South Carolina and other Southern states remains far too prevalent.

“There have been remarkable improvements in South Carolina, particularly in high-poverty rural areas that had extraordinarily poor literacy rates back in 1992,” Rex said.  “So I think this survey reflects corresponding improvements in our public schools and particularly in our adult education programs.  But although the improvement is worth celebrating, 15 percent isn’t.  We have a long way to go if we’re going to overcome the historical effects of poverty in South Carolina and continue to improve our state’s overall quality of life.”

South Carolina’s 2003 adult illiteracy rate of 15 percent – adults who can’t read at all or who can read just a few words but not entire sentences or paragraphs – was similar to nearby Southern states. Georgia’s was 17 percent, Mississippi’s was 16 percent, Florida’s was 20 percent, Alabama’s was 15 percent, North Carolina’s was 14 percent and Tennessee’s was 13 percent.

South Carolina’s fastest-improving counties were rural.  For example, McCormick County had an adult illiteracy rate of 40 percent in 1992 but improved to 20 percent in 2003.  Marlboro County improved from 39 percent to 24 percent, while Allendale, the state’s poorest county, improved from 43 percent to 29 percent.

Rex singled out South Carolina’s adult education programs for special praise, saying that they benefit not only their students but also the communities where those students live and work.

David Stout, director of the South Carolina Department of Education’s Office of Adult Education, said the General Assembly’s funding commitment has been a major factor.  Initiatives such as the Young Adult Program (17-21 years of age) has allowed adult ed programs to expand their offerings for adults needing high school diplomas, GED diplomas or Career Readiness Certificates.
Between 6,500 and 7,500 adults earn a high school credential through adult education each year, and last year nearly 8,000 adult education students earned Career Readiness Certificates.
“The continued success of our GED programs, our career readiness initiatives and our outreach program for non-English speakers will drive our agenda for the next several years,” Stout said.  “Our partnerships with agencies such as Vocational Rehabilitation, the Technical College system, the Department of Corrections and others ensures that all citizens will have access to quality adult education services.”


The NCES adult literacy comparison tool is available on line at this URL: