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Adult skills in an international context

Question:
How do the skills of adult Americans compare with those of adults around the world?

Response:
The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is a cyclical, large-scale study of adult skills and life experiences focusing on education and employment. Nationally representative samples of adults between the ages of 16 and 65 are administered an assessment of literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments, as well as survey questions about their educational background, work history, the skills they use on the job and at home, their civic engagement, and sense of their health and well-being. The results are used to compare participating countries on the skills capacities of their workforce-aged adults and to learn more about relationships between educational background and employment and other outcomes.

PIAAC results are reported in two ways: (1) as scale scores (estimated on a 0–500 scale) in the three domains of literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments, and (2) as percentages of adults reaching the proficiency levels established for each of these domains. PIAAC reports five proficiency levels for literacy and numeracy (Below level 1, Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, and Level 4/5) and four levels for problem solving in technology-rich environments (Below level 1, Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3).

Selected Findings

Literacy scale


Average scores on the PIAAC literacy scale for adults age 16 to 65, by participating country and region: 2012 and 20141

The data in this figure is described in the surrounding text.

1 Data for all countries are from 2012, except for the United States which are the U.S. PIAAC 2012/2014 data.

NOTE: Countries and regions are listed in descending order determined by their unrounded average scores. Apparent differences between estimates may not be statistically significant. Some population groups did not have enough sample size to meet the minimum reporting standards. PIAAC 2012 international average based on all countries and regions that participated in PIAAC 2012 as reported in the 2012 NCES First Look (Goodman et al., 2013). Country- and region-specific results are available at the PIAAC Results Portal.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), 2016.


The primary goal of PIAAC’s literacy assessment is to measure everyday literacy, which is defined by the PIAAC framework 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" (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 2012). In literacy, the U.S. average score (272) was not measurably different than the PIAAC international average score (273). Compared with the PIAAC international average distribution of literacy skills, the United States had a larger percentage of adults performing at both the top and the bottom of the distribution (13 versus 12 percent at Level 4/5, and 18 versus 16 percent at Level 1 and below).

Numeracy scale


Average scores on the PIAAC numeracy scale for adults age 16 to 65, by participating country and region: 2012 and 20141

The data in this figure is described in the surrounding text.

1 Data for all countries are from 2012, except for the United States which are the U.S. PIAAC 2012/2014 data.

NOTE: Countries and regions are listed in descending order determined by their unrounded average scores. Apparent differences between estimates may not be statistically significant. Some population groups did not have enough sample size to meet the minimum reporting standards. PIAAC 2012 international average based on all countries and regions that participated in PIAAC 2012 as reported in the 2012 NCES First Look (Goodman et al., 2013). Country- and region-specific results are available at the PIAAC Results Portal.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), 2016.


The primary goal of PIAAC’s numeracy assessment is to evaluate basic mathematical and computational skills that are considered fundamental for functioning in everyday work and social life. Numeracy in the PIAAC framework is defined as “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” (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 2012).

In numeracy, the United States performed below the PIAAC international average. The U.S. average score was 12 points lower than the PIAAC international average score (257 versus 269). Compared with the international average distributions for numeracy, the United States had a smaller percentage at the top (10 versus 12 percent at Level 4/5), and a larger percentage at the bottom (28 versus 19 percent at Level 1 and below).

Problem solving in technology-rich environments scale


Average scores on the PIAAC problem solving in technology-rich environments scale for adults age 16 to 65, by participating country and region: 2012 and 20141

The data in this figure is described in the surrounding text.

1 Data for all countries are from 2012, except for the United States which are the U.S. PIAAC 2012/2014 data.

NOTE: Countries and regions are listed in descending order determined by their unrounded average scores. No countries or regions scored significantly lower than the United States. Apparent differences between estimates may not be statistically significant. Some population groups did not have enough sample size to meet the minimum reporting standards. Not all countries chose to assess the problem solving in technology-rich environments domain. In countries that did, the percentage of respondents who completed the assessment varied widely from country to country but was less than the percentage that completed the literacy and numeracy domain because the assessment was only offered on computer. In the United States, approximately 15 percent of respondents chose not to take the assessment on computer or were unable to do so. PIAAC 2012 international average based on all countries and regions that participated in PIAAC 2012 as reported in the 2012 NCES First Look (Goodman et al., 2013). Country- and region-specific results are available at the PIAAC Results Portal.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), 2016.


PIAAC represents the first attempt to assess problem solving in technology-rich environments on a large scale and as a single dimension in an international context. PIAAC defines problem solving in technology-rich environments as “using digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks” (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 2012).

In problem solving in technology-rich environments, the United States performed below the PIAAC international average. The U.S. average score was 9 points lower than the international average (274 versus 283). Compared with the international average distributions for this skill, the United States had a smaller percentage at the top (5 versus 8 percent at Level 3), and a larger percentage at the bottom (64 versus 55 percent at Level 1 and below).

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) (NCES 2016-039), 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: First Look.

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