Statistic of the Month: Noteworthy Findings in OECD’s First Survey of Adult Skills

By Jennifer Craw

Last month the OECD released the results of the first Survey of Adult Skills, part of the Programme of International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).  The report, Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, evaluates the literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills of adults aged 16-65 in 24 participating countries.  Japan and Finland ranked first and second for all three categories, while the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway were near the top for all three, as well.  The United States ranked 16th among 24 countries in adult literacy, 21st in numeracy and 14th in problem solving.  Along with general country rankings, the report highlights some notable differences among participating countries, including the effect of socio-economic background, variation in scores between younger and older adults, percent of adults proficient at problem solving in technology-rich environments, and the impact of previous educational attainment on scores.  Below are four charts summarizing these findings.

For some countries, including the U.S., socio-economic background is strongly linked to skill level.  For high performing countries—Japan, Australia and the Netherlands—the impact of socio-economic background is not nearly so dramatic.  The OECD used parents’ educational attainment as an indicator of socio-economic background.  The following chart shows the difference between literacy and numeracy scores for adults with at least one parent who completed some higher education and those with neither parent completing upper secondary school.  The chart shows results for the United States and the high-performing countries on PISA 2009 that participated in this round of PIACC (they are shown in darker colors).  The United States displays the greatest score difference between adults with at least one parent having attained tertiary education and those whose parents have not attained upper secondary, 28 points for literacy and 32 points for numeracy.   In Japan, the difference is only about 11 points for either category, the lowest of the participating countries.

Source: OECD Skills Outlook 2013

Variation in literacy and numeracy skills between younger adults, aged 16-24, and older adults also highlights a worrisome trend for some countries.  In certain countries, the United States, Australia and UK included, there is little difference in skill level between older and younger adults.  Top performing countries like Finland, Korea, and the Netherlands on the other hand, show a sharp increase in skill levels for younger adults compared to older adults.  This indicates that while some countries are increasing the skills of their workforce to meet a rising need for high skills, other countries seem to have plateaued and are therefore falling behind the increasing demand for a highly skilled workforce.  In the chart below, once again the United States and top performing countries on PISA 2009 are highlighted in darker colors.

Source: OECD Skills Outlook 2013

The ability to solve problems in technology-rich environments is particularly pertinent to the increasing global demand for 21st century skills, especially among younger adults who will spend their entire careers increasingly dependent on technology.  In top performing countries like Korea, Finland and Sweden, 60 percent of adults aged 16-24 scored at Level Two or higher for proficiency in problem solving in technology-rich environments.  In the United States, on the other hand, not even 40 percent of adults reached Level Two for problem solving.  Japanese adults, while scoring at the top in literacy and numeracy skills, notably have less than 50 percent of their adults at a Level Two or higher in problem solving.

Problem SolvingSource: OECD Skills Outlook 2013

Educational attainment played a significant part in score differences for some countries, particularly the United States.  The United States has the biggest difference in skill proficiency for those who have completed some form of higher education and those who have completed no more than upper secondary.  Japan again had a much smaller difference in scores due to educational attainment, and scored unusually high for all levels of education.  In fact, the average high school graduate from Japan outperformed the average university graduate from some southern European countries.  The chart below plots the score differences by country for literacy and numeracy between adults who have completed some form of higher education and those who have completed only upper secondary schooling.  Again, high performers on PISA 2009 and the United States are shown in darker colors.

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Source: OECD Skills Outlook 2013

The findings highlighted here raise some alarm bells for U.S. policymakers, as not only are adults in the United States at or below average scores for the comparison countries, the longer term trends about skills levels for the next generation adults do not bode well either.  It should be noted that the results from this survey include 24 countries of which Hong Kong, New Zealand, Shanghai and Singapore—top performers in PISA 2009, which in its last administration included 65 countries—are not part of this first effort by OECD to measure literacy skills in adults.  New Zealand and Singapore will take part in the next PIACC survey, which will be released in 2016.  To read more about PIACC, visit http://skills.oecd.org/skillsoutlook.html.