PIAAC Results section image — a diversified group of people in varying age groups, careers and education levels PIAAC Results section image — a diversified group of people in varying age groups, careers and education levels

U.S. Performance in International Context

U.S. PIAAC Results in International Context

Placing U.S. results in an international context provides a clearer view of how U.S. working-age adults compare with their peers in other countries as well as with international averages. This web report presents PIAAC results for the United States, the two highest-performing countries that participated in the PIAAC study, and the international average. These data were collected between 2011 and 2015 from adults between the ages of 16 and 65 across 32 countries, including the United States. Results for 23 countries were collected in 2011–12, and an additional 9 participated in PIAAC’s second round of data collection in 2014–15.

The figures in this web report display collapsed PIAAC proficiency levels so that users can readily see broad patterns in the data. For example, in literacy and numeracy, the top category combines Levels 3, 4, and 5. In digital problem solving, the top category combines Levels 2 and 3. Links below each of the figures allow users to access full data tables through the International Data Explorer (IDE), which provide results for all of the participating countries/regions, response categories for each variable, and the discrete PIAAC proficiency levels.

All stated differences in this report are statistically significant at the .05 level.

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.

Figure 1-A. 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: LIT = Literacy. NUM = Numeracy. DPS = Digital problem solving. 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.

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), 2012–15.

Examining skill levels, 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. See the types of tasks associated with the PIAAC proficiency levels in literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving.

Figure 1-B. Percentage distribution of adults age 16 to 65 at selected levels of proficiency on PIAAC literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving for the United States and highest-performing countries: 2012–15

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

NOTE: LIT = Literacy. NUM = Numeracy. DPS = Digital problem solving. Percentages for the United States are compared to the PIAAC international average and highest-performing countries. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. 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.

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), 2012–15.

A brief look at context

U.S. adults have some of the highest levels of educational attainment among countries participating in PIAAC. About 86 percent of U.S. adults age 16 to 65 have attained at least a high school education, while 14 percent have less than a high school education. Only one country in PIAAC has a smaller percentage of adults with less than a high school education: Lithuania (with 12 percent). Compared to the international average, the United States had higher percentages who have completed a high school education or whose education level is more than high school.

The “less than high school” category includes adults who have not finished high school or attained an equivalent credential, while “high school” includes adults who have attained at least a high school credential but have not yet earned an associate’s degree or higher. “More than high school” includes adults who have attained at least an associate’s degree or higher level of education.

Figure 2-A. Percentage distribution of adults age 16 to 65 for the United States and highest-performing countries, by level of educational attainment: 2012–15

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

NOTE: Respondents were asked to identify the highest level of education they have completed. The variable used to report education attainment here (EDCAT6) allows us to report international comparisons. Note that the percentages with this variable differ slightly from the percentages reported for education attainment in the U.S. trend figures because this variable is based on the newer International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) categories. U.S. trends based on earlier international adult skill assessments rely on the older classification system, which considers all adults who have “earned a certificate from a college or trade school” as adults with “More than high school” education, but the new classification system considers adults who have earned a certificate that is not part of an associate’s program or higher (ISCED 4-A-B-C) as adults with only a “High school” education. The percentages shown in the figure are based on the PIAAC literacy scale. Percentages from the PIAAC numeracy and digital problem solving scales are similar to the percentages from the literacy scale. Percentages for the United States are compared to the PIAAC international average and highest-performing countries. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Results for 23 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, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), 2012–15.

The next figure breaks out the average performance of adults by educational attainment, with each level of attainment represented by a different shape. Hover over the key at the top of the figure to focus on results for one educational level. Hover over a specific data point to see an expanded view.

In all three domains, U.S. adults who have attained a high school diploma as well as U.S. adults who have less than a high school education scored lower, on average, than their peers internationally. Moreover, U.S. adults with a high school diploma scored lower, on average, in all three domains than adults in Japan who have less than a high school education. Adults in Finland who did not finish high school, similarly, had higher average numeracy and digital problem solving scores than U.S. high school graduates. In addition, adults who did not finish high school in eight other countries (the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Norway, Poland, the Republic of Korea, and the Slovak Republic) scored higher, on average, in digital problem solving than U.S. adults who attained only a high school diploma. Specific results for these eight countries, as well as all other participating countries, may be accessed by clicking the full data link below the digital problem solving display.

Figure 2-B. Average scores on PIAAC literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving for adults age 16 to 65 for the United States and highest-performing countries, by level of educational attainment: 2012–15

Hover over the key or a data point for an expanded view


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

NOTE: LIT = Literacy. NUM = Numeracy. DPS = Digital problem solving. Respondents were asked to identify the highest level of education they have completed. The variable used to report education attainment here (EDCAT6) allows us to report international comparisons. Note that the results with this variable differ from the results reported for education attainment in the U.S. trend figures because this variable is based on the newer International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) categories. U.S. trends based on earlier international adult skill assessments rely on the older classification system, which considers all adults who have “earned a certificate from a college or trade school” as adults with “More than high school” education, but the new classification system considers adults who have earned a certificate that is not part of an associate’s program or higher (ISCED 4-A-B-C) as adults with only a “High school” education. 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 based on the “more than high school” average scores. Results for the United States are shown on the far left within each domain to highlight that comparison.

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), 2012–15.

A brief look at context

Employment rates across the countries participating in PIAAC ranged from 79 percent in Norway to 44 percent in Turkey. With 74 percent of adults being either employed or self-employed, the U.S. percentage was higher than the international average (67 percent). Readers should note that adults in the “unemployed” category were those who indicated that they were without work but currently available for work, and were actively seeking paid work. Adults in the “out of labor force” category were those not currently seeking paid work (e.g., because of study, household duties, or sickness/disability).

Figure 3-A. Percentage distribution of adults age 16 to 65 for the United States and selected PIAAC participating countries, by current employment status: 2012–15

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

NOTE: The percentages shown in the figure are based on the PIAAC literacy scale. Percentages from the PIAAC numeracy and digital problem solving scales are similar to the percentages from the literacy scale. Percentages for the United States are compared to the PIAAC international average and selected countries. Detail may not sum to totals because the response category “not known” is not shown. Results for 23 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, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), 2012–15.

In literacy, the average score of employed adults in the United States was higher than the international average, but was lower than those of employed adults in the higher-performing countries displayed here. Employed U.S. adults scored lower than the international average across participating countries in both numeracy and digital problem solving. Similar to earlier patterns, U.S. adults across all employment categories scored below or not significantly different from the higher-performing countries in all three domains. Readers should note that comparison results for Japan were not available for digital problem solving because the category “unemployed” was not reportable and thus Netherlands appears in the digital problem solving figure as it is the next highest performing country after Finland with data in this domain.

Figure 3-B. Average scores on PIAAC literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving for adults age 16 to 65 for the United States and highest-performing countries, by current employment status: 2012–15

Hover over the key or a data point for an expanded view


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

NOTE: LIT = Literacy. NUM = Numeracy. DPS = Digital problem solving. 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 for which data are available, in descending order from left to right within each domain based on the “employed” average scores. Results for the United States are shown on the far left within each domain to highlight that comparison.

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), 2012–15.

A brief look at context

In 5 of the 32 countries that participated in PIAAC, non-native born adults make up at least 20 percent of the adult population, ranging from a high of 29 percent for New Zealand to 21 percent for Ireland. The United States ranks eighth overall among these 32 countries with 15 percent of its adults being non-native born. Although not shown here, both Japan and Poland have very few non-native born adults (i.e., they have about 100 percent native born adult populations).

Figure 4-A. Percentage of non-native born adults age 16 to 65 for the United States and selected PIAAC participating countries: 2012–15

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

NOTE: Respondents were asked whether they were born in the country in which they completed the PIAAC assessment. “Native born” refers to those who were born in that country, while “non-native born” refers to those who were not. The percentages shown in the figure are based on the PIAAC literacy scale. Percentages from the PIAAC numeracy and digital problem solving scales are similar to the percentages from the literacy scale. The percentage for the United States is compared to the PIAAC international average and selected countries. Results for 23 of the countries were gathered in 2011–12, and an additional 9 participated in 2014–15. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.

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), 2012–15.

While the overall pattern shows significant score differences in the average literacy scores between native born and non-native born adults, countries with some of the largest proportions of non-native born adults have smaller score differences in literacy than other participating countries, like Singapore (with a nonsignificant score difference between native born and non-native born adults) and New Zealand (with an 8-point difference). The score gap for the international average is 23 points—lower than the gap in the United States (38 points). Non-native born adults in New Zealand had a higher score than those in all other countries except the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic (which were not measurably different).

The pattern is similar in numeracy and digital problem solving in New Zealand and Singapore, with only the digital problem solving score difference in New Zealand (4 points) being statistically significant. Both of those countries’ non-native born adults are among the top performers in PIAAC numeracy and digital problem solving. While the score gaps between native born adults and non-native born adults in the United States are not as dramatic in the two domains less driven by language ability, they are still 29 points in numeracy and 26 points in digital problem solving.

Figure 4-B. Average scores on PIAAC literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving for adults age 16 to 65 for the United States and highest-performing countries, by nativity: 2012–15

Hover over the key or a data point for an expanded view


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

NOTE: LIT = Literacy. NUM = Numeracy. DPS = Digital problem solving. Respondents were asked whether they were born in the country in which they completed the PIAAC assessment. “Native born adults” refers to those who were born in that country, while “non-native born adults” refers to those who were not. 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 among the countries with the highest proportions of non-native born adults are shown, in descending order from left to right within each domain based on “native born adults” average scores. Results for the United States are shown on the far left within each domain to highlight that comparison. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.

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), 2012–15.

A brief look at context

The percentages of adults age 16 to 65 who reported being either in “excellent” or “very good” health ranged from a high of 71 percent in Israel to a low of 17 percent in the Republic of Korea. In the United States, 57 percent reported “excellent” or “very good” health, which was higher than the international average of 48 percent and Japan’s 30 percent (presented to provide a consistent point of comparison).

Figure 5-A. Percentage of adults age 16 to 65 reporting “excellent” or “very good” health for the United States and selected PIAAC participating countries: 2012–15

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

NOTE: Respondents were asked to indicate the status of their health, choosing from the choices of “excellent,” “very good,” “good,” “fair,” or “poor.” The percentages shown in the figure are based on the PIAAC literacy scale. Percentages from the PIAAC numeracy and digital problem solving scales are similar to the percentages from the literacy scale. The percentage for the United States is compared to the PIAAC international average and selected countries. Results for 23 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, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), 2012–15.

Performance gaps between adults in the United States who reported “excellent” or “very good” health and those reporting “fair” or “poor” health were statistically significant compared to the gaps internationally. For example, the U.S. score gap in literacy was 41 points compared to the international average 29-point score gap and the U.S. score gap in numeracy was 44 points compared to the international 33-point gap. Readers should note that these differences are calculated with unrounded results so that subtracting the rounded results shown in the figures may differ. U.S. adults consistently scored lower than Japan and Finland across all health categories in all three PIAAC domains.

Figure 5-B. Average scores on PIAAC literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving for adults age 16 to 65 for the United States and highest-performing countries, by self-reported health status: 2012–15

Hover over the key or a data point for an expanded view


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

NOTE: LIT = Literacy. NUM = Numeracy. DPS = Digital problem solving. Respondents were asked to indicate the status of their health, choosing from the choices of “excellent,” “very good,” “good,” “fair,” or “poor.” Results are not shown for the “good” response category in the figure. 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 based on the average scores for adults reporting “excellent or very good” health. Results for the United States are shown on the far left within each domain to highlight that comparison.

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), 2012–15.

NOTES AND SOURCES

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), 2012–15.

Suggested citation: PIAAC International Highlights Web Report (NCES 2020-127). U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. Available at https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/current_results.asp#international.