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Adult skills in an international context

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


The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is a cyclical, large-scale study of adult cognitive skills and life experiences developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and, in the United States, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). PIAAC was designed to assess adults between the ages of 16 and 65 in different countries over a broad range of abilities, from reading simple passages to complex problem-solving skills, and to collect information on an individual's skill use and background.

PIAAC assesses three key competencies needed for successful participation in 21st-century society and the global economy:

Literacy: the ability to understand, use, and respond appropriately to written texts.

Numeracy: the ability to use basic mathematical and computational skills.

Digital Problem Solving: the ability to access and interpret information in digital environments to perform practical tasks. This is referred to as “problem-solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE)” in supporting documentation and in previous publications.

Results are currently available for adults in 32 countries, including the United States, that participated in PIAAC between 2012 and 2015. Results for 23 of the countries were gathered in 2011–12, and an additional 9 participated in 2014–15. PIAAC results are reported in two ways: as average scores on a 0–500 scale in each of the competencies and as percentages of adults reaching specific proficiency levels. There are six levels of proficiency for literacy and numeracy (from below Level 1 to Level 5) and four in digital problem solving (from below Level 1 to Level 3).

Selected findings

From 2012–15, U.S. adults scored higher in literacy than the PIAAC international average across participating countries; however, they scored lower in both numeracy and digital problem solving. Such comparisons to the international average paint a mixed picture of U.S. skills, but compared to higher-performing countries like Japan and Finland, the United States lags behind in all three domains.

Average scores on PIAAC literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving for adults age 16 to 65 for the United States and highest-performing countries: 2012–15

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

* Significantly different (p < .05) from the United States.

NOTE: Average scores for the United States are compared to the PIAAC international average and highest-performing countries. Results for 23 of the countries were gathered in 2011–12, and an additional 9 participated in 2014–15. The two highest-performing countries are shown, in descending order from left to right within each domain. Results for the United States are shown on the far left within each domain to highlight that comparison.

Examining skill levels in 2012–15, the United States is notably below the top-performing countries shown here—Japan and Finland. In literacy, 50 percent of U.S. adults performed at Level 3 or above compared to 72 percent in Japan and 63 percent in Finland. At the other end of the skill spectrum, 18 percent of U.S. adults performed at or below Level 1 in literacy, compared to 5 percent in Japan and 11 percent in Finland performing at this lowest level. In numeracy, 39 percent of U.S. adults performed at Level 3 or above compared to 63 percent in Japan and 58 percent in Finland; 28 percent of U.S. adults performed at or below Level 1, compared to 8 percent in Japan and 13 percent in Finland. In digital problem solving, 36 percent of U.S. adults performed at Level 2 or above compared to 56 percent in Japan and 51 percent in Finland. While 23 percent of U.S. adults performed below Level 1 in digital problem solving, 12 percent in Japan and 14 percent in Finland performed at this lowest level.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Highlights of the 2017 U.S. PIAAC Results Web Report (NCES 2020-777) and PIAAC International Highlights Web Report (NCES 2020-127).

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