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INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT: U.S. Adults Rank Below International Averages in Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem-solving Skills, According to New OECD Survey

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“Too many people are being left behind today,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria. “With effective education and life-long learning everyone can develop their full potential. The benefits are clear, not only for individuals, but also for societies and for the economy.”

Adults in the United States rank in a tie for fifteenth out of twenty-three countries in literacy, twenty-first in numeracy, and tied for seventeenth in problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to other developed nations in the first Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Survey of Adult Skills. The new survey, also known as the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), measures the skill levels of sixteen- to sixty-five-year-olds.

“Larger proportions of adults in the United States than in other countries have poor literacy and numeracy skills, and the proportion of adults with poor skills in problem solving in technology-rich environments is slightly larger than the average, despite the relatively high educational attainment among adults in the United States,” the report notes.

In literacy, which the PIAAC defines as “the ability to understand and respond appropriately to written texts,” the United States had an average score of 270, placing it below top-performers such as Japan (296), Finland (288), and the Netherlands (284), as well as the international average (273), as shown in the table below.

Country Literacy
Score
Country Literacy
Score
Japan 296 Republic of
Korea
273
Finland 288 United
Kingdom
272
Netherlands 284 Denmark 271
Australia 280 Germany 270
Sweden 279 United
States
270
Norway 278 Austria 269
Estonia 276 Cyprus 269
Flanders-
Belgium
275 Poland 267
Czech
Republic
274 Ireland 267
Slovak
Republic
274 France 262
Canada 273 Spain 252
International
Average
273 Italy 250

With a score of 270, the United States placed at Level 2 (out of 5), which requires the respondent to make matches between the text and information. In the example from the text, a test-taker had to glean information from a website for the annual fun run for the Lakeside Community Club. Level 2 is below Level 3, where texts are often dense or lengthy and digital texts are complex, such as a bibliographic search from a simulated library website. Only 12 percent of Americans scored at the highest level, in line with the international average, but below the 22 percent achieved by Finland and Japan. One in six Americans scored below Level 2 in literacy—a larger-than-average percentage compared to other nations.

The United States faired worst in numeracy, or “the ability to use numerical and mathematical concepts” in the workplace, where only 8 percent of Americans reached Level 4, compared to 19 percent of adults in Japan and Finland. And with an average score of 253, Americans finished higher than only two other countries tested—Italy and Spain.

The third and final skill on which country participants were tested was digital literacy, or more formally, problem solving in information-rich environments, defined as “the capacity to access, interpret, and analyze information found, transformed, and communicated in digital environments.” For this category, the United States’s performance was similarly dismal, ranking ahead of only Poland.

“The first question these kinds of studies raise is, ‘If we’re so dumb, why are we so rich?’” Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told the New York Times. “Our economic advantage has been having high skill levels at the top, being big, being more flexible than the other economies, and being able to attract other countries’ most skilled labor. But that advantage is slipping.”

While the United States performed below average in every category, the PIAAC finds some positive trends. For example, Americans participate in adult education and training at a higher rate than most other countries. It also finds that individuals scoring at higher literacy levels were more likely to participate in adult education and training, which ranges from basic literacy programs to university education and high-level professional training. For example, more than 80 percent of adults scoring at Level 4 or 5 in literacy participated in adult education and training, compared to only 41.9 percent and 31.9 percent, respectively, for individuals scoring at Level 1 or below.

Some of the key takeaways from the survey center around the importance of high-quality education and the impact that socioeconomic status has on skills proficiency. Adults in the United States who did not graduate from high school scored an overall average of 230.3 points; those with a high school diploma averaged 260.9 points, and individuals with a college education averaged 291.4 points. In the United States, in particular, higher socioeconomic status had a direct correlation to better skill proficiency scores. The survey also finds that individuals with lower literacy skills tend to have poorer health outcomes than those with higher literacy skills. And in the United States, the odds of an individual reporting “fair” or “poor” health are four times greater for those with low literacy skills (below Level 2) than for highly skilled adults (Level 4 or 5)—is double the international average.

The survey also includes data based on race/ethnicity and finds that black and Hispanic individuals in the United States are “substantially overrepresented” in the low-skilled population. “While one in ten white adults scores below Level 2 in literacy, more than one in three (35 percent) black adults and nearly one in two (43 percent) Hispanics do so,” the report notes. “Similar patterns are observed in numeracy: 59 percent of black and 56 percent of Hispanic adults score below Level 2, compared to 19 percent of white adults.”

“Too many people are being left behind today,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria. “With effective education and life-long learning everyone can develop their full potential. The benefits are clear, not only for individuals, but also for societies and for the economy.”

The full U.S. results from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills are available at www.oecd.org/site/piaac/Country%20note%20-%20United%20States.pdf.

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