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INTERNATIONAL COMPARISONS: Literacy Skills of U.S. Adults Match International Averages, While Math and Technology Skills Lag Behind

On average, the literacy skills of U.S. adults compare favorably to those of their international peers. But when it comes to math and technology skills, U.S. adults are not keeping up with their contemporaries in other countries.

Those findings come from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), an international study that measures the literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving skills adults need to complete everyday tasks. The study, coordinated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), includes data collected in 2012 from a representative sample of adults aged sixteen to sixty-five years in twenty-four countries, including the United States. Additionally, the United States conducted a second data collection in 2014 to gather supplemental information specifically about the skills of the nation’s unemployed adults, young adults (those aged sixteen to thirty-four), and older adults (those aged sixty-six to seventy-four).

In literacy, the average score for U.S. adults (272) did not differ measurably from the PIAAC international average score (273). The United States ranked in a tie for thirteenth out of the twenty-two countries that administered the literacy assessment. On the numeracy and digital problem-solving assessments, however, the United States ranked eighteenth out of twenty-two countries and below the PIACC international averages in numeracy and last out of seventeen countries for digital problem solving, as shown in the table below.

International Comparisons

Additionally, on all three assessments the United States had a higher percentage of adults who scored in the two lowest proficiency levels than the international average.

The additional data collection conducted by the United States offers detailed information about the performance of specific groups of American adults. This supplemental data, contained in the report Skills of U.S. Unemployed, Young, and Older Adults in Sharper Focus: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) 2012/2014, reveals national disparities in performance along educational and racial lines.

Across all three areas assessed—literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving—the percentage of young adults in the United States who scored at the highest level increased as the level of educational attainment increased. Furthermore, in literacy specifically, American young adults with college degrees outscored their international counterparts. Among young adults, 44 percent of graduate degree holders and 32 percent of bachelor’s degree holders in the United States reached the highest proficiency level on the PIACC literacy assessment compared to 38 percent of graduate degree holders and 29 percent of bachelor’s degree holders internationally.

But the results are not as favorable among young adults with a high school diploma or less education. “Comparing internationally, among young adults ages 16–34 whose highest level of education was high school or less, larger percentages in the United States performed at the bottom of the proficiency distribution (Level 1 or below) in all three domains than is the case, on average, across the participating PIAAC countries,” according to the PIAAC report. The report offers the following comparisons:

  • In literacy, 14 percent of U.S. high school graduates and 30 percent of U.S. high school dropouts scored at Level 1 or below compared to 9 percent of high school graduates and 22 percent of high school dropouts internationally.
  • In math, 27 percent of U.S. high school graduates and 48 percent of U.S. high school dropouts scored at Level 1 or below compared to 13 percent of high school graduates and 28 percent of high school dropouts internationally.
  • In digital problem-solving, 64 percent of U.S. high school graduates and 74 percent of U.S. high school dropouts scored at Level 1 or below compared to 46 percent of high school graduates and 57 percent of high school dropouts internationally.

“Postsecondary institutions should be happy,” says Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), on NPR. “But on the other end of the continuum, we have young people coming out of high school—or not graduating from high school—[who] are struggling with everyday competencies.” NCES prepared the PIAAC report in conjunction with OECD.

Furthermore, the PIAAC report reveals striking disparities in the performance of young adults of color in the United States. Across all three assessments, smaller percentages of African American and Latino young adults scored at the highest proficiency level while larger percentages of the same subgroups scored in the lowest two proficiency levels than white young adults.

Skills of U.S. Unemployed, Young, and Older Adults in Sharper Focus: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) 2012/2014 is available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2016039. Additional PIAAC results also are available at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/.

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