What Your Score Means

Your literacy scores will be provided in an easy-to-read score report after you have taken the test. The score reports are descriptive in that they characterize your strengths and weaknesses on three literacy proficiency scales (prose, document and quantitative) for the PDQ Profile Series and along a single health activities literacy scale for the Health Activities Literacy Tests.

Score Range

For the full-length tests, your score will be given in five-point increments ranging from 0 to 500 for each of the scales measured. Each score will fall into one of five levels:

  • Level 1 — 0 to 225
  • Level 2 — 226 to 275
  • Level 3 — 276 to 325
  • Level 4 — 326 to 375
  • Level 5 — 376 to 500

For the locator test, your score will be given in levels: Level 1, Level 2 or Level 3 and higher.

How to Interpret Your Score

The tasks used in the tests vary widely in terms of the type of reading material and in terms of the type of question that test takers are asked or the directive they are given in relation to this material. As a result of this interaction, these tasks also vary considerably in terms of their average difficulty.

What the Test Tasks Represent

Just as adults participating in large-scale assessments are sampled from the population of adults living in households, the literacy tasks used in the various surveys and in these tests are sampled from a population of possible tasks. Each literacy task is representative of a kind of text and a kind of process or strategy that is associated with adult contexts.

For instance, the tasks that make up the Health Activities Literacy Tests are representative of the kinds of texts and processes that are associated with the five categories of health activities, while the tasks that make up the PDQ Profile Series are representative of the kinds of texts and processes associated with printed materials found in everyday life at work, at home and around the community.

Difficulty of Tasks and Test-taker Performance

Just as adults receive scale scores according to their performance on a set of tasks, the literacy tasks received specific scale values according to their difficulty, as determined by the performance of national samples of adults who participated in the various surveys.

The Procedure Used

The procedure used to model this continuum of difficulty and ability is based on item response theory (IRT). IRT is a mathematical model used for estimating the probability that a particular person will respond correctly to a given task from a specified pool of tasks.

What the Levels Mean

Scores on each of the three literacy scales are characterized in terms of five levels that capture the progression of complexity and difficulty of the literacy tasks in the tests. Level 1 represents the lowest level of literacy proficiency, while Level 5 represents the highest.

How the Levels Are Determined

A number of national and state organizations in the United States, including the National Governors Association, have identified Level 3 proficiency as a minimum standard for success in today's labor markets. Levels below 3 are considered to indicate limited proficiency, while levels above 3 indicate high proficiency.

Limited Proficiency

Individuals scoring in Level 1 or 2 can best be characterized as possessing very limited to restricted literacy proficiencies. While few of the adults in Level 1 or 2 would be considered "illiterate" in the historical meaning of that term (an inability to write one's own name or to read and understand a very simple passage), few have the skills many believe are needed to succeed in today's more technologically dependent economy, to gain access to high-wage jobs or to actively participate in civic and political life.

For example, adults who scored in the Level 1 to Level 2 range are performing below the average proficiencies of adults who graduated from high school; in fact, those in Level 1 are performing below the average score of adults who dropped out of high school and never earned a diploma or its equivalent.

Minimum Proficiency

Individuals performing at Level 3 are able to integrate information from relatively long or dense text or from documents. They are considered to possess the minimum level of literacy skills to function successfully in today's society.

High Proficiency

Individuals performing at Levels 4 and 5 are considered to have high proficiency. These adults demonstrate proficiencies associated with the most challenging tasks in the tests.

The literacy tasks used in the tests vary widely in terms of the type of material that is being read and in terms of the type of question or directive that is being asked related to this material. As a result of this interaction, these tasks also vary considerably in terms of their average difficulty.

Several questions arise once one looks at the distribution of tasks along any of the literacy scales, including:

  • What distinguishes tasks at the lower end of the scale from those in the middle and upper levels of the scale?
  • Do tasks that fall around the same place on the scale share some set of characteristics that results in their having similar levels of difficulty?

How Low-end Tasks Differ from High-end

Tasks at the lower end of the literacy scale differ from those at the higher end in a progression of complexity and difficulty.

Analyses of the interactions between the materials read and the tasks based on these materials reveal that an ordered set of information-processing skills appears to be called into play to perform the range of tasks along each scale.

To capture this ordering, each scale was divided into five levels that reflect the progression of information-processing skills and strategies. These levels were determined, not as a result of any statistical property of the scales, but rather as a result of shifts in the skills and strategies required to succeed on various tasks along the scales.

Tasks with Similar Levels of Difficulty

These levels have some shared properties. Tasks were placed along each scale so that someone at that point on the scale would have an 80 percent chance of answering that item correctly. Stated another way, the average person within each level would be expected to get 80 percent of the items within that level correct.

How the Scales Are Divided into Levels

In addition, the range of each level is such that a person at the bottom of each level would be expected to score about 60 percent on a hypothetical test made up of tasks from that level. Since each literacy level represents a progression of knowledge and skills, individuals within a particular level not only demonstrate the knowledge and skills associated with that level but the proficiencies associated with the lower levels as well.

In practical terms, this means that individuals performing at 250 on one of the literacy tests are expected to be able to perform the average Level 1 and Level 2 tasks associated with that test with a high degree of proficiency. In contrast, someone with an estimated proficiency that is at 250 would be expected to perform relatively poorly on the tasks at Levels 3 and higher. That is, they would be expected to score less than 60 percent correct on a test made up of items from Level 3 and even poorer on a test made up of items from Level 4 or 5.

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