ROUGHLY half of American adults can perform only simple reading and writing tasks - like locating information in a sports article or totaling numbers on a bank-deposit slip - unable to glean facts from complex texts or do tasks involving more than two steps.
However, nearly 70 percent of these adults describe themselves as able to read or write ``well or very well.''
The most comprehensive survey of adult literacy in two decades, released by the United States Department of Education Wednesday, paints what Secretary of Education Richard Riley calls ``a picture of society in which the vast majority of Americans do not know that they do not have the skills they need to earn a living.
``We are beginning to see ... the emergence of a two-class society: between those who know and know that they need to know more, and those who don't know that their lack of knowledge is hurting their chances of getting ahead and possibly ruining the lives of their children,'' Mr. Riley says.
One-fifth of adults tested ranked in the survey's lowest literacy group, meaning that they could complete only tasks involving brief, uncomplicated texts, such as locating the time and place of a meeting on a form. They could not figure the total cost of a purchase, locate an intersection on a map, or enter information on a form.
More than half the adults in the lowest literacy level did not finish high school. One-third were 65 years of age or older. And one-quarter were immigrants for whom English is a second language.
Nearly 13,600 people 16 years of age and over were interviewed for the National Adult Literacy Survey, commissioned by Congress in 1988. Results show that about 47 percent of adults demonstrate low literacy levels.
Riley described the statistics as shocking, but not surprising. ``On the whole, the survey results are fairly disturbing.... The numbers indicate that we've slipped in some degree.''
Adults with low literacy levels who perceive themselves as literate present new challenges for adult-education programs, says Irwin Kirsch, executive director of the Literacy, Learning, and Assessment Group at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J. However, in major cities, adults confront waiting lists for placement in continuing-education classes.
The Department of Education now grants states more than $200 million a year for adult basic education, English-as-a-second-language training, and adult secondary programs for those no longer in school.
In order to improve program effectiveness, all states have accepted new Department of Education quality guidelines as a condition for receiving 1994 program grants, Riley says.
The department also plans to expand workplace education programs through cooperation with business and labor. ``People seem to learn more if they make the connection that it will help them on the job,'' Riley says.
The ability of adults to effect change, or improve their economic status, is directly linked to the literacy rate, according to Andrew Kolstad, statistician in the Education Assessment Division of the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington.
More than 40 percent of adults having the lowest level of literacy live in poverty, as compared with 4 percent of adults who rank in the highest literacy level and live in poverty. The likelihood that adults are poor and will remain poor increases substantially with illiteracy, Riley says.
In addition, 55 percent of eligible adults in the lowest level on the literacy scale voted in a national or state election in the last five years, compared with 89 percent of those in the highest level of literacy. The survey also indicates that unemployment decreases as the literacy level of the participants rises.
``Literacy has become a currency for negotiating individual opportunities,'' Mr. Kirsch says. ``Like currency, literacy isn't evenly distributed. Moreover, it is subject to inflation. The implications are serious because, like those who are cash-poor, people trying to advance on the job and manage the many aspects of their lives with low-level literacy skills have little to bargain with.''