by Bob Rothman
A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows once again that U.S. adults perform far less well than their counterparts in other nations in literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving.
The report presents results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a test of skills of adults aged 16-74, first administered in 2011-12 in the U.S. and 23 other countries. The test was developed and administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The results were originally released in October 2013, and showed the U.S performance far below international averages. The new report is based on the earlier results plus a new sample of younger adults, aged 16-34; older adults, aged 66-74; and unemployed adults, aged 16-65, that were tested between August 2013 and April 2014. The new sample of 3,660 adults permits more in-depth analyses of the skills of those three populations, the report states.
The new data show that the combined sample of U.S. adults performed at about the international average in literacy, but well below international averages in numeracy and digital problem solving. In literacy, seven countries significantly outperformed the U.S.: Japan, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Estonia, and Flanders (Belgium). The U.S. outperformed adults in six nations: Cyprus, Poland, Ireland, France, Spain, and Italy.
In numeracy, the U.S. outperformed only France, Italy, and Spain, and in digital problem solving, all countries outperformed the U.S. except Poland, which performed at the same level.
Like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), PIAAC is aimed at measuring the ability to solve problems in real-world contexts. The test measures skills in four domains—reading, literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving, although only the latter three were the subject of the new report.
The literacy tasks measure everyday literacy, which the OECD defines as “understanding, evaluating, using, and engaging with written text to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” A sample literacy task, at level 3 (on a 1-5 scale), provides results from a bibliographic search from a library website, and asks the test-taker to identify the name of the author of a particular book and access the page where the book is located. Half of U.S. adults performed at level 3 or above in literacy, about the same proportion as the international average.
Numeracy tasks measure “the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas, to engage in and manage mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.” A sample problem, at level 3 (on a 1-5 scale), provides test-takers with an illustration of a box constructed from folded cardboard, along with the dimensions of the base. Test-takers are asked to identify which plan best represents the assembled box out of four plans presented. Thirty-nine percent of U.S. adults performed at level 3 or above in numeracy, compared with 47 percent of the international sample.
Digital problem solving, or problem solving in technology-rich environments, measures the ability to, “use digital technology, communication tools, and networks, to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.” A sample task, at level 2 (on a 1-3 scale), asks students to respond to a request for information by locating information in a spreadsheet and e-mailing the requested information to the person who asked for it. A third of U.S. adults performed at level 2 or above, compared with 45 percent internationally.
In addition to the overall average scores, the new report also provides detailed results on the populations tested in the 2013-14 study: young adults, older adults, and unemployed adults.
As might be expected, young adults’ performance was associated with their level of educational attainment: 44 percent of those with graduate or professional degrees, and 32 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree, attained level 4 or 5, the highest levels on the 5-point scale, in literacy, the report found. By contrast, only 10 percent of those with a high school credential and 4 percent of those with less than a high school credential reached those levels. At the same time, 13 percent of those with graduate or professional degrees performed below level 2, indicating limited skills, compared with 30 percent of those with less than a high school credential.
Moreover, young adults with less than a high school credential performed less well than their counterparts internationally. In numeracy, 48 percent of U.S. young adults without a high school credential performed below level 2, compared with the international average of 28 percent. And in digital problem solving, 74 percent of U.S. young adults without a high school credential performed below level 2 (on a 3-point scale), compared with the international average of 57 percent.
The report also found substantial achievement gaps among young adults in the U.S. In numeracy, 15 percent of white young adults performed at levels 4 or 5, compared with 1 percent of blacks and 3 percent of Hispanics; 14 percent of whites performed below level 2, compared with 52 percent of blacks and 42 percent of Hispanics.
Older adults, ages 66-74, performed less well than their younger counterparts. Only 7 percent of adults in that age group reached level 4 or 5 in literacy, while 11 percent of those ages 16-24 and 18 percent of those ages 25-34 reached those levels. Perhaps not surprisingly, the older adults performed least well in digital problem solving: 83 percent performed below level 2, compared with 60 percent of the youngest cohort.
However, among older adults, the correlation between educational attainment and performance was not as clear-cut as it was for the younger adults. In numeracy, for example, those with a bachelor’s degree performed about as well as those with a high school credential; 16 percent of those aged 65-74 with a high school credential reached level 4 or 5, compared with 15 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree.
Unemployed adults performed less well than those who were employed, at every age level and in every subject. However, among unemployed adults with low levels of educational attainment—75 percent of unemployed adults—performance was particularly low. A third of all unemployed adults with a high school credential or less performed at level 1 or below in literacy, and half performed at level 1 or below in numeracy.
The achievement gaps among unemployed adults were particularly stark, the report found. Sixty-two percent of black unemployed adults and 57 percent of Hispanic unemployed adults performed below level 2 in numeracy, compared with 28 percent of whites, and 87 percent of black unemployed adults and 80 percent of Hispanic unemployed adults performed below level 2 in digital problem solving, compared with 63 percent of white unemployed adults.
U.S. unemployed adults also performed less well than those in other countries. Forty-two percent of U.S. unemployed adults performed below level 2 in numeracy, compared to the international average of 27 percent, and 73 percent of U.S. unemployed adults performed below level 2 in digital problem solving; the international average was 60 percent.
The findings of the report suggest a clear agenda for policy makers. Improving the skill levels of young adults and unemployed would not only improve their prospects for the future; it is also vital to the productivity of the nation as a whole. The success of the higher-performing nations shows that such improvements are possible.
For more on the lagging skills of the U.S. workforce, see NCEE president Marc Tucker’s blog Top Performers, hosted by Education Week. And for more on the digital problem solving skills of younger U.S. workers, see our latest Stat of the Month.