Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Counties


Examining literacy and numeracy based on political preference.

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is a program of National Center for Education Statistics. It is an “international study for measuring, analyzing, and comparing adults’ basic skills of literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving. The assessment focuses on the basic cognitive and workplace skills needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper.”

Adults are tested in both literacy and numeracy. “Literacy is understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written text to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” (1) Numeracy is “the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas, to engage in and manage mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.” (2)

I’ve plotted county results against the percent of each county that voted for Donald J. Trump in 2020. This scale is a useful indicator of blue-state and red-state America. Each plot shows the portion of adults that scored at level 3 or higher.

For literacy, PIAAC supplies this description of level 3:

Texts at this level are often dense or lengthy and include continuous, noncontinuous, mixed, or multiple pages of text. Understanding text and rhetorical structures becomes more central to successfully completing tasks, especially navigating complex digital texts. Tasks require the respondent to identify, interpret, or evaluate one or more pieces of information and often require varying levels of inference. Many tasks require the respondent to construct meaning across larger chunks of text or perform multi-step operations in order to identify and formulate responses. Often, tasks also demand that the respondent disregard irrelevant or inappropriate content to answer accurately. Competing information is often present, but it is not more prominent than the correct information.

For numeracy level 3:

Tasks at this level require the respondent to understand mathematical information that may be less explicit, embedded in contexts that are not always familiar, and represented in more complex ways. Tasks require several steps and may involve the choice of problem-solving strategies and relevant processes. Tasks tend to require the application of number sense and spatial sense; recognizing and working with mathematical relationships, patterns, and proportions expressed in verbal or numerical form; or interpretation and basic analysis of data and statistics in texts, tables, and graphs.

Here are the plots:

Click for larger.

I asked ChatGPT to help perform a regression analysis for the literacy and numeracy variables separately. In both cases it found a negative relationship, that is, for literacy: “an increase in the proportion of Trump votes is associated with a decrease in literacy performance. This coefficient is statistically significant with a p-value less than 0.001.” The same was found for numeracy.

In both cases, R-squared, or the explanatory power of the regression model was low. For literacy, “about 3.7% of the variability in literacy performance is explained by the proportion of Trump votes in the area. For numeracy it was 5.3%. ChatGPT says R-squared “is a statistical measure that represents the proportion of the variance for a dependent variable that’s explained by one or more independent variables in a regression model. In simpler terms, it shows how well the data fit the regression model (the goodness of fit).”


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One response to “Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Counties”

  1. Anonymous

    I would like to offer my take on the results of your regression analysis, but I’m sure you would not allow it to be seen. My analysis has more to do with common sense than Artificial Intelligence. It’s something even relatively uneducated people understand, while the “intellectuals” complicate it beyond all reason.

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