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 assesses three key skill areas needed for successful participation in modern society and the global economy—literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving—and collects information on adults’ education, work experience, and other factors.
Literacy refers to the ability to understand, use, and respond appropriately to written texts. Numeracy refers to the ability to use basic mathematical and computational skills. Digital Problem Solving (also referred to as
problem solving in technology-rich environments) means the ability to access and interpret information in digital environments to perform practical tasks.
Results are currently available for adults in 39 countries, including the United States, that participated in PIAAC between 2012 and 2017 (Cycle I). Results for 25 of the countries were gathered in 2012, an additional 9 participated in 2015, and an additional 6 participated in 2017. 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).
In the United States between 2012/14 and 2017, there were no statistically significant changes in the percentages of adults performing at each proficiency level in any of the three PIAAC domains. The percentages of U.S. adults performing at the lowest levels (i.e., Level 1 or below in literacy and numeracy and below Level 1 in digital problem solving) in 2017 were 19 percent in literacy, 29 percent in numeracy, and 24 percent in digital problem solving. The percentages performing at the highest levels (i.e., Level 3 or above in literacy and numeracy and Level 2 or above in digital problem solving) in 2017 were 48 percent in literacy, 37 percent in numeracy, and 38 percent in digital problem solving.
From 2012–15, U.S. adults scored higher in literacy than the PIAAC international average across participating countries;1 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
* 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.
1 Results are available for adults age 16 to 65 in 30 countries, including the United States, that participated in PIAAC between 2012 and 2015. Results for 21 of the countries were gathered in 2011–12, and an additional 9 participated in 2014–15.
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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