Inside IES Research

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Real-World Responses in Real Time: Social Inequality in Access to COVID-19 Information

Whether you are a trained healthcare provider, a grocery store clerk, or a retired professor, you are probably seeking information about COVID-19 and how best to take care of yourself and others. However, your age, level of education, and other factors may influence how you seek information and how likely you are to benefit from it.

IES researchers Dr. Taka Yamashita (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) and Dr. Phyllis Cummins (Miami University) have been exploring the intersection of education, age, health, and problem solving (grant R305A170183). Program officer, Dr. Meredith Larson, spoke with them about their work and its implications during the current pandemic.

 

What has the COVID-19 epidemic brought to your attention?

For us, the COVID-19 epidemic has highlighted health information disparities by education and basic skills. In combination with other risk factors, like older age and lower income, some sub-populations are particularly vulnerable in the public health crisis. It is our sincere hope that our research underlines the urgent needs to promote education, literacy, and numeracy throughout the life course, not only to protect vulnerable populations but also to promote disaster preparedness and the well-being of our society.

What does your research suggest are important factors for predicting health information seeking behavior?

In general, we often seek health information only when we need it due to poor health. What is interesting is that, when we need health information, some sociodemographic characteristics and basic skills (for example, reading and numeracy skills) lead to differences. For example, in our analysis of PIAAC data, older age is related to lower usage of online health information sources while greater literacy skills are related to use of more online health information sources. Also, people with greater educational attainment and higher literacy skills are more likely to seek disease prevention and health promotion information from online sources and books. Overall, age, education, and literacy skills are closely and consistently related to what kind of health information sources people use and how much they do it.

How might these factors affect what people find or whether they benefit from it?

Age, education, and literacy skills differentiate how and where people seek health information. We believe that the Internet is one of the best information sources in terms of timeliness and amount of available information. However, some sub-populations, such as younger adults, those with higher education, and those with higher literacy skills, tend to take advantage of and benefit from the online health information more than their counterparts. As such, older adults, those with lower education, and those with lower literacy skills tend not only to miss online health information sources but also to under-utilize and/or mis-use health information.

What could information providers do to better reach different audiences?

Information providers could consider how and where they publish their information. For example, older adults, those with lower education, and those with lower literacy skills tend not to use online sources. Therefore, it is critical to provide accessible health information to offline sources such as newspapers and healthcare professionals (for example, face-to-face with a physician or nurse). Also, paying attention to the “at-risk” populations’ needs is important. There are simple things like using a large font, plain English and multiple languages (for example, English and Spanish) that can immediately enhance the quality of health communication.

Where can people go to learn more about this line of research?

More information about our studies on education and literacy can be found on our IES grant page. Also, one of our recent articles on literacy skills, language use, and online health information seeking among Hispanic adults in the United States has been featured in the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) health communications science digest.


Written by Meredith Larson. This is the second in a series of blog posts that explores how researchers respond to various education-related issues and challenges. The first blog post can be found here.

Real-World Responses in Real Time : COVID-19 Information Needs to Consider Literacy Gaps

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people have a heightened need for information, literacy barriers can be life threatening. In the United States, roughly 20 percent of adults read at the lowest level, with another 33 percent still below proficiency1. Thus, many may be struggling to understand written guidance on COVID-19.

IES researchers at the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (R305C120001 and R305H180061) and their associated Adult Literacy Research Center at Georgia State University are working to address the needs of adults with literacy skill gaps. Dr. Meredith Larson spoke to Dr. Daphne Greenberg and Dr. Iris Feinberg about their work in this area.

What are your concerns for adults with low literacy during the pandemic?

Daphne GreenbergIris FeinbergWe have known for a long time that the high prevalence of adults with low basic skills has consequences for both the individual and society. These consequences are heightened during this pandemic. Many adults with low literacy have “essential” jobs and must continue to work. They often interact with many different people daily. So it is crucial that they understand COVID-19 precautions for their own health and because their ability to know and practice safe behaviors has a direct impact on disease transmission to others. To be quite frank, we are concerned about the health and safety of our learners and the health and safety of others.

In the United States, we receive an overwhelming amount information about COVID-19 daily. To make matters worse, there’s no uniform national guidance, some of the information is incorrect, and other information is conflicting. It is challenging for highly literate individuals to make sense of it all. For example: When can a COVID-positive person step out of quarantine? Can someone be re-infected? How many feet constitute safe distance? The list of questions goes on and on.

For someone with low literacy, it’s even more difficult to make sense of all the COVID-19 information. For example, people with low reading skills may not be able to read or understand all of the written information. Additionally, because much of the information is on the internet, adults with low digital skills and/or poor access to the internet have the added problem of not being able to find information that could possibly be helpful to them.

How are you trying to address their needs?

We’ve created a library with a large sample of materials written for 9th grade reading levels and below available on the ALRC website. These documents provide specific information on topics like how to stop the spread or what to do if someone in your home has COVID-19. We hope that providers who work with adults with low literacy skills—like adult educators, community organizers and healthcare providers—will use our library and find the high-interest/low-literacy materials. The library is also divided into “easier” and “harder” resources, so people can quickly find material at appropriate reading levels.

What could healthcare providers, the media, or others do to help?

We all must help those who may not know where to find information. Not everyone knows how or where to look for health information or whether the information they find is valid. Our analysis of PIAAC data found that people with low literacy rely more on TV and radio for information. Simple, short public service announcements that are action oriented would be great for anyone who relies on TV or radio but particularly for those who have low reading skills.

Also, we need to be better prepared for all kinds of emergencies by creating community-wide partnership plans among trusted sources for adults with low literacy like community organizations, healthcare providers, and adult education providers. In addition, we should be following plain language guidelines in all of our written and oral communications. Writing health information in plain language helps everyone and should not be an afterthought.

 


Written by Meredith Larson. This is the first in a series of blog posts that explores how researchers respond to various education-related issues and challenges.


About the PIAAC

The PIAAC is an international assessment for adults that assesses cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving) and contains data on educational background, workplace experiences and skills, and other items. For the purposes of this blog, the category of lowest levels is defined as Below Level 1 and Level 1 and below proficiency is Level 2. For more information about estimates of U.S. adult skills as measured by the PIAAC: https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/current_results.asp

 

New IES Grantee Focuses on Improving Adult Literacy

In her first IES grant, Dr. Elizabeth Tighe (Georgia State University) is taking expertise honed in both an NCER predoctoral fellowship and PIAAC methods training program to help further adult literacy research. Her earlier work includes developing assessments for adults with low literacy, leveraging statistical approaches to understand these adults’ abilities and difficulties, and using eye-tracking paradigms to explore their ability to self-monitor during reading. 

Program officer, Meredith Larson, interviewed Dr. Tighe about her previous work and new grant.

What is your general area of research, and why is it important?

I focus on adult struggling readers, which comprises roughly 36 million (1 in 6) adults in the U.S. Only a fraction of these adults enroll in adult education programs, which are plagued by insufficient funding, high teacher turnover rates, and a lack of research-based instructional practices and curricula. By better understanding these adults’ strengths and deficits and how best to measure their skills, I aim to inform and improve adult education programs.

What could people do with your research?

My research could directly inform how we help adults become stronger readers, and this can improve educational outcomes, such as GED attainment. I am working towards building better assessments for adult education practitioner and researcher use. My longer-term goal is to design a curriculum to teach morphology (e.g., prefixes and suffixes) and use this to improve adults’ vocabulary and reading comprehension.

What are you trying to learn through your new IES project?

For this grant, I’m using the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a large-scale, international assessment of adult literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving skills, to create risk profiles of adults with low literacy skills. This sort of information could move us closer to being able to individualize instruction in adult education programs to match the needs of specific learners.

We will use PIAAC data to explore how demographic characteristics (age, race/ethnicity, educational background, employment status) and malleable factors (enjoyment of learning, frequency of computer use, reading and writing behaviors at home and at work) influence low literacy performance.

Further, we are examining whether risk factors differ by whether someone has a high school diploma and whether someone has participated in education or training recently. We will also explore whether reading components and literacy skills are predictive of low-skilled adults’ numeracy skills.

Our findings could have important implications for understanding risk factors and predictors of low literacy as well as low numeracy. As stated previously, 1 in 6 U.S. adults have low literacy skills and nearly 1 in 3 have low numeracy skills. For GED attainment, adults must demonstrate proficiency in both of these areas (along with science, social studies, and writing knowledge). It’s important to have targeted, individualized instruction for these adults because they may have time or resource barriers.

How did this particular research project arise?

I first learned about PIAAC at a summer institute. I was intrigued, in particular, because PIAAC is the first assessment of this size to include a reading component supplement for lower-skilled adults.

I recently attended a 3-day NCER/ETS PIAAC training workshop, which allowed me to work with PIAAC data and network with others. This workshop influenced my decision to apply for an IES grant. I felt that a 2-year grant using extant data would be a great way to combine my interests regarding individual differences in adults’ component skills and get my feet wet with IES as a new investigator. I am excited to bridge my interests and grow as a researcher by learning and working alongside two experts (Drs. Yaacov Petscher and John Sabatini) in the larger reading and education field!

Family, Work, and Education: The Balancing Act of Millions of U.S. Adults

For U.S. adults with low skills or low academic attainment, finding the time or resources to go back to school can be difficult because of family and work obligations. Recently released NCES tables from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) give us a clearer sense of how many adults face this challenge. With this information, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers can better understand and meet the education and training needs of working adults and parents.

How large is the concern?

Previous PIAAC analyses found that nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults score at the lowest levels of literacy, nearly 30 percent score at the lowest levels of numeracy, 14 percent of U.S. adults have less than a high school diploma, and 27 percent have no more than a high school diploma or equivalent. But how many of these adults have family or work responsibilities that may complicate their participation in education?

According to the new NCES tables, millions of adults have low skills or low attainment and family or work obligations that may complicate participation in education or training.

  • Of the over 40 million adults at the lowest levels of literacy, nearly 56 percent are employed, 77 percent have children, and 44 percent are both employed and have children.
  • Of the nearly 63 million adults at the lowest levels of numeracy, nearly 56 percent are employed, 74 percent have children, and 42 percent are both employed and have children.
  • Of the nearly 31 million adults with less than a high school diploma or equivalent, nearly 49 percent are employed, 58 percent have children, and 32 percent are both employed and have children.
  • Of the nearly 58 million adults with no more than a high school diploma or equivalent, approximately 64 percent are employed, 71 percent have children, and 45 percent are both employed and have children.

What do we know about how to serve adults with family or work obligations?

Currently, the research on improving outcomes for adults with low skills or low attainment is limited, and less is known on how to help such adults who have family or work obligations.

Examples of questions facing policymakers, practitioners, and researchers include:

  • How do current education and training programs benefit working adults or parents?
  • Are work or family obligations barriers, motivational factors, or both?
  • Are multi-generational approaches (e.g., those that combine postsecondary or adult education services with Head Start or early childhood education) able to improve the academic outcomes of adults and the children they care for?
  • Are the assessments used appropriate for adults?

IES offers opportunities for researchers to conduct this sort of work through its Postsecondary and Adult Education topic and disseminate information about promising practices. For more information about funding opportunities for such research, contact Dr. Meredith Larson.

About the PIAAC

The PIAAC is an international assessment for adults that assesses cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving) and contains data on educational background, workplace experiences and skills, and other items. For the purposes of this blog, the category of lowest levels is defined as Below Level 1 and Level 1.

 

By Meredith Larson, NCER Program Officer

 

Teach a Researcher to Fish: Training to Build Capacity for IES Data Analysis

The Institute of Education Sciences is pleased to announce upcoming training opportunities to help researchers study the state of adult skills and competencies. Training Researchers to Use PIAAC to Further Multidisciplinary Research is a hands-on, interactive training to build the field’s capacity for conducting research using data from the OECD Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

Picture of students participating in trainingThe training, conducted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), aims to teach researchers how to use IES data and data tools for further, independent research beyond the training so that they can meet the emerging needs of policymakers and practitioners needs for years to come.

This program is an example of the various ways that IES is building the evidence base in education. The training is supported by a Methods Research Training grant from the National Center for Education Research. It uses PIAAC data, which in the U.S. were collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The training also uses data tools that are available through NCES.

Beginning this August, ETS is holding 3-day and 1-day PIAAC trainings in cities throughout the U.S. These trainings will bring together researchers from various organizations and institutions to learn not only about the data and tools but also about how to use them to address important questions about policy-related research from a wide host of fields including education, gerontology, sociology, public health, economics, workforce development, and criminal justice and corrections education. These trainings will culminate with an IES/ETS-sponsored conference in Washington, D.C. in December 2018, during which participants will have an opportunity to present their research.

Who is Eligible?

Researchers from universities, research firms, or other organizations (e.g., advocacy groups, local governments) and who have a doctoral degree or are graduate students in a doctoral programs, experience with statistical packages (e.g., SAS, SPSS) and with secondary data analysis, and an interest in adult learning, skills, and competencies.

What Does it Cost?

The training itself is free for participants, and participants who are U.S. citizens or U.S. permanent residents will receive assistance to cover housing and per diem during the training. Visit the training website for more information about possible finical assistance.

When is the Training? How do I Apply?

The training will take place several times in the coming months:

  • August 30-Sept. 1, 2017 in Chicago;
  • October 2-4, 2017 in Atlanta; 
  • December 4-6, 2017 in Houston;
  • April 13, 2018 in New York City (at the AERA Annual Conference)
  • Culminating Conference: December 1-3, 2018, in Washington, DC

Visit the ETS training website for more information about the program and the most up-to-date schedule. Registration is open and can be completed online.

Written by Meredith Larson, Program Officer, National Center for Education Research