Special Report

Most and Least Literate States

Detailed findings

According to the most recent survey of adult literacy in the United States, the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 14.5% of American adults age 16 and over lack basic prose literacy skills — defined as ranging from being fully unable to read to only being able to understand short, commonplace text in English, but nothing more advanced. The share of adults lacking basic prose literacy skills ranges from 23.1% in California to 5.8% in New Hampshire and is strongly correlated with the share of limited English-speaking households.

One of the largest predictors of student success is parental education, and adult literacy rates correlate heavily with student educational outcomes. In 9 of the 10 states with the highest adults literacy rates, the share of eighth graders who scored proficient or better on the reading section of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress is greater than the 34.3% national share. This percentage is lower than the national rate in 9 of the 10 states with the lowest adult literacy rates.

Literacy rates also correlate with factors associated with reading behavior and access to books. In all 10 of the states with the highest adult literacy rates, the concentration of public libraries is greater than the national figure of 5.2 public libraries per 100,000 Americans.

While the relationship between school expenditures and student outcomes is complicated, research has identified a link — albeit a minor one — between school spending and academic achievement, and states with higher public school expenditure per pupil tend to have higher literacy rates and more student success overall. Expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools per pupil are greater than the national average of $11,408 in seven of the 10 states with the highest adult literacy rates, and lower in eight of the 10 states with the lowest adult literacy rates.

The states with the highest school spending per capita are New York, Alaska, and Connecticut, and the states with the lowest are Utah, Idaho, and Arizona.

School spending and, ultimately, student outcomes are largely associated with wealth. Approximately 92% of public school funding comes from state and local sources, much of which is derived from income and property taxes. Median annual household incomes are greater than the national median of $57,617 in all 10 of the states with the higher per-pupil school expenditure. Incomes are strongly correlated with literacy rates overall.

Methodology

To identify the most and least literate states, 24/7 Wall St. compiled an index of several measures related to reading proficiency, access to reading materials, and library usage. The share of adults lacking basic prose literacy skills — defined as literacy skills ranging from being “unable to read and understand any written information to being able only to locate easily identifiable information in short, commonplace prose text in English” — came from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy as was included in the index at full weight. The shares of fourth and eighth graders who scored proficient or better on the reading section of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress came from the National Center for Education Statistics and were each included in the index at half-weight. The shares of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey and were included in the index at full weight. Data on the number of bookstores in each state came from the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns series and was included in the index at half-weight after being adjusted for population. Data on the number of public libraries in each state came from the American Library Association and was included in the index at half-weight after being adjusted for population. The number of registered public library users in each state also came from the ALA and was included in the index at full weight as a percentage of the total population.