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.
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.
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.
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.
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 pointslower 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.
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.
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.