1 in 5 Illinois adults is illiterate, but it’s 1 in 4 in Cook County

1 in 5 Illinois adults is illiterate, but it’s 1 in 4 in Cook County

Research shows income and adult literacy are strongly related. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show 20% of Illinois adults are “functionally illiterate.” Cook County’s rate is 25%.

One-fifth of Illinois adults are functionally illiterate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That means they cannot understand the meaning of sentences, locate information on pages or complete simple forms, all of which would affect their abilities to hold many jobs.

In Cook County, 25% of adults are functionally illiterate.

Education is no guarantee of escaping or preventing poverty in Chicago, but research has shown the link between education and poverty. Poverty rates in Chicago drop with each level of educational attainment. Chicago’s high-school dropouts face poverty rates more than four times higher than their peers with bachelor’s degrees.

Research shows literacy is linked to income.

Literacy and income

According to a Barbara Bush Foundation report, income and adult literacy are strongly related. The report uses data from the U.S. Department of Education and an international assessment of adult skills called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. The assessment sets Level 1 or lower as low literacy, also known as functional illiteracy.

Nationally, adults who meet the lowest levels of literacy proficiency on the assessment earn an income which is nearly $24,000 less than adults who reach the minimum level and can understand written text to participate in society and develop their potential.

Adult literacy in Illinois

The National Center for Education Statistics produced an analysis of literacy proficiency for adults aged 16-74 in all states and counties across the country.

One-quarter of Cook County adults scored at or below Level 1 on the literacy evaluation, meaning they are functionally illiterate. Cook County’s rate of illiteracy is statistically higher than the Illinois statewide percentage of 20%.

Cook County has the third-highest percentage of adults functionally illiterate among all Illinois counties, only trailing Alexander County with 35% of adults functionally illiterate and Pulaski County with 26%.

Lack of high school preparation, despite high graduation rates

The measure for adult literacy on the assessment is different than the Illinois State Board of Education’s assessment of high school students’ reading proficiency on the SAT. But recent high graduation rates amid an epidemic of low reading proficiency has raised questions about the preparedness of high school graduates for higher education or the workplace.

In Chicago Public Schools, the largest school district in Cook County and Illinois, just 22% of 11th-grade students were proficient in reading in 2023 and 19% in math, according to the Illinois State Board of Education report card. Yet ISBE reported the 2023 four-year graduation rate in CPS was 82.9%.

There is a similar discrepancy in the two public school districts in Alexander County that educate high school students. Just 16% of 11th-grade students met grade-level standards on the reading portion of the SAT in Egyptian Community Unit School District 5. In Cairo Unit School District 1, no students met grade-level reading standards. Yet, the four-year graduation rate in Egyptian in 2023 was 86.1%, and 75% in Cairo.

Pulaski County likewise has two public school districts that educate high school students. In Century Community Unit School District 100, just 14.3% of 11th-grade students could read at grade level while 17.2% could at Meridian Community Unit School District 101. The four-year graduation rate in Century in 2023 was 96.7%, and 92.1% in Meridian.

How Cook County literacy compares to other big cities

Among counties with U.S. cities that have a population of 1 million or more, the rate of adults who scored as “functionally illiterate” in Cook County is better than eight other counties. Only four counties had fewer adults score at Level 1 or below on the literacy assessment compared to Cook County.

Bronx County, one of the five counties which comprise New York City, had the highest rate of adults at or below Level 1 on the literacy evaluation with 50% functionally illiterate.

The county with the lowest rate of adults at or below Level 1 on the literacy evaluation was Maricopa County, the home of Phoenix, Arizona. It recorded just 22% of its adults functionally illiterate.

Public school systems should deliver on academic preparedness

Although adult literacy in Cook County is comparably better than some other counties with large U.S. cities, it is still egregious that 1 in 4 of Cook County adults is functionally illiterate, particularly in the context of the relationship between literacy and income.

While literacy and education are not the same thing, educational attainment increases access to higher-paying jobs and is associated with a greater likelihood of employment – one of the greatest determinants of poverty.

In Chicago, further educational attainment beyond high school has proved a struggle for many students. CPS students struggle to graduate college in fewer than six years, according to a study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. Among the costs to students who do not graduate college in the expected four years are extra tuition costs and delayed entry into jobs.

CPS must help students graduate high school, but a CPS high school diploma ought to mean that student is able to read and do math. Chicago’s graduates need a solid educational foundation to earn more and get better jobs.

It is important Chicago graduates leave their high schools literate, regardless of their higher education goals. The research shows literacy pays.

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