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Highlights of PISA YAFS Results


The Program for International Student Assessment Young Adult Follow-up Study (PISA YAFS) is a new study that allows research into the characteristics, cognitive skills, and other life outcomes of young adults as they transition from high school to postsecondary life. This summary—based on the study’s Research and Development report—provides a snapshot of outcomes at the outset of this important transition, as well as preliminary examinations of how these outcomes are related to individuals’ competencies in high school. It is intended to serve as an example of using multiple data sources in longitudinal research and to contribute to the literature on education and employment pathways.

As shown in the results below, PISA YAFS found generally strong, positive relationships between individuals’ reading and mathematics performance at age 15 (as measured in PISA 2012) and their literacy skills, numeracy skills, and educational trajectories 4 years later at age 19. In documenting these relationships, PISA YAFS also provides an indication of the degree to which success on PISA 2012 is related to various outcomes at this important transitional stage and the outset of adult life.

For additional findings and technical details, see the Research and Development report, 2012-2016 Program for International Student Assessment Young Adult Follow-up Study (PISA YAFS): How reading and mathematics performance at age 15 relate to literacy and numeracy skills and education, workforce, and life outcomes at age 19.

PISA YAFS was conducted in the United States in 2016 with a sample of young adults (at age 19) who participated in PISA 2012 when they were in high school (at age 15). In PISA YAFS, students took the Education and Skills Online (ESO) literacy and numeracy assessments, which are based on the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). Both PISA and PIAAC, on which ESO is based, were designed to meet the overarching goal to “identify and develop the knowledge and skills that drive better jobs and better lives, generate prosperity, and promote social inclusion” (OECD n.d.). As such, both assessments seek to measure key competencies that are applicable across a wide range of culturally and linguistically diverse countries, recognize a continuum of competency, and reflect real-world demands and contexts. While each study has its own unique framework, there are similarities in the content and skills measured and the overall approach and philosophy between the two. Table A provides a brief overview of the assessment components of PISA 2012 and ESO. Each also included a background questionnaire for participants.

Table A. Overview of assessment data sources in PISA YAFS: 2012 and 2016

PISA 2012 ESO (based on PIAAC)
Time frame of data collection October–November 2012 March–July 2016
Age at data collection 15 years old 19 years old 1
Subjects included in PISA YAFS Reading and Mathematics Literacy 2 Literacy and Numeracy
Mode Paper-and-pencil Computer-based, adaptive
Effective scales (for each subject) 3 200–800 points 100–400 points
Proficiency-level categories 4 Low (Below level 2) Low (Below level 2)
Middle (Levels 2–4) Middle (Levels 2–3)
High (Level 5 or above) High (Level 4 or above)

1 Estimates for 19-year-olds are for individuals who were 15-year-old students in fall 2012 and who participated in PISA YAFS in 2016.

2 To avoid confusion with the ESO literacy and numeracy assessments, PISA subjects are referred to as “reading” and “mathematics” when reporting the results.

3 Effective scales are estimated using three standard deviations up and down from the mean, as determined for each program. Score distributions show that few students score outside these ranges (per OECD and NCES).

4 Both the individual and categorized proficiency levels have their own assessment-specific definitions. Because the groupings were based on the same rationales for each assessment, they are similar enough for general comparisons but should not be considered fully equivalent.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2012; and Program for International Student Assessment Young Adult Follow-up Study (PISA YAFS), 2016.

Because of its design, PISA YAFS is able to provide data on literacy proficiency, numeracy proficiency, and life outcomes at age 19, as well as their relationship to individuals’ reading and mathematics literacy at age 15. This summary focuses on these outcomes and relationships and explores whether they differ based on individuals’ background characteristics or the socioeconomic status of the schools they attended at age 15.

Results are described mainly by proficiency levels, which are based on descriptions of the types of tasks that individuals at the various levels have demonstrated they can perform. For reporting, the levels for each assessment have been grouped into low, middle, and high levels (see table A).

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  • In 2016, most 19-year-olds performed at the middle level of proficiency in ESO: 72 percent in literacy and 68 percent in numeracy (see figure A). About one-fifth to one-quarter of 19-year-olds performed at the low level, and small percentages (10 percent or less) performed at the high level.
  • The distribution across ESO proficiency levels was not statistically different in either subject by sex, language spoken at home, or whether a student was born in the United States, but it did differ by race/ethnicity. Proportionately more Black 19-year-olds were in the low level of proficiency in ESO numeracy compared with the population overall (45 vs. 25 percent, respectively).

Figure A. U.S. 19-year-olds’ proficiency in ESO, by subject and level: 2016

U.S. 19-year-olds’ proficiency in ESO, by subject and level: 2016

NOTE: See appendix B in PISA YAFS report for additional detail. Detail may not sum to totals due to rounding.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Program for International Student Assessment Young Adult Follow-up Study (PISA YAFS), 2016.

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Proficiency at age 19 was most closely related to proficiency at age 15 among the middle performers, who were the largest group in the PISA YAFS population at age 15 as well (77 percent in reading and 68 percent in mathematics) (see table B).

  • Of the U.S. 19-year-olds who performed at the middle level of proficiency in PISA 2012 reading at age 15, about 78 percent also performed at the middle level of proficiency in ESO literacy at age 19. Seven percent of these PISA middle performers were at the high level of proficiency in ESO literacy at age 19 and 15 percent were at the low level.
  • Of the 19-year-olds who performed at the middle level of proficiency in PISA 2012 mathematics at age 15, about 79 percent also performed at the middle level of proficiency in ESO numeracy at age 19. Four percent of these PISA middle performers were at the high level of proficiency in ESO numeracy at age 19, and 17 percent were at the low level.

Table B. Percentage of PISA 2012 middle performers, by ESO proficiency levels: 2012 and 2016

PISA 2012 subject Percent of PISA YAFS population who were PISA 2012 middle performers (at age 15) Percent of PISA 2012 middle performers, by ESO proficiency levels (at age 19)
High (Level 4 and above) Middle (Levels 2–3) Low (Below level 2)
Reading 77 7 78 15
Mathematics 68 4 79 17

NOTE: See appendix B in PISA YAFS report for additional detail. Detail may not sum to totals due to rounding. Results for middle performers (levels 2–4) in PISA 2012 reading are distributed across proficiency levels in ESO literacy and those in PISA 2012 mathematics across proficiency levels in ESO numeracy.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2012; and Program for International Student Assessment Young Adult Follow-up Study (PISA YAFS), 2016.

The pattern for 19-year-olds who were high and low performers in PISA 2012 were not as stark: They were not as consistently in the same-labeled proficiency-level categories as they were at age 15. In fact, among PISA 2012 high performers, at least half were in a different category in ESO at age 19—mainly, in the middle proficiency level (57 percent in literacy and 54 percent in numeracy). Additionally, 49 percent of PISA 2012 low performers in literacy and 40 percent in numeracy were, by age 19, in the ESO middle proficiency level. In the case of both high and low performers, however, the overall percentages in these PISA 2012 categories were relatively small (22 percent or less).

When examined by subgroup, the pattern of a predominant and stable middle group held true, regardless of 19-year-olds’ background characteristics, such as sex and race/ethnicity. However, the pattern diverged for 19-year-olds who, at age 15, were in schools with high percentages of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) (see table C 1).

  • In both subjects, proportionately more PISA 2012 middle performers who had been in the most economically challenged schools (i.e., those with 75 percent or more of students receiving FRPL) scored at the low level of proficiency in ESO in 2016 than did the population overall (28 vs. 15 percent in literacy and 36 vs. 17 percent in numeracy, respectively).
  • In mathematics, proportionately fewer PISA 2012 middle performers who had been in the most economically challenged schools scored at the middle level of proficiency in ESO numeracy than did the population overall (62 vs. 79 percent, respectively).

Table C. Percentage of 19-year-old middle performers in PISA 2012, by ESO proficiency level and subject: 2016

Low ESO proficiency in 2016 Middle ESO proficiency in 2016
ESO literacy ESO numeracy ESO literacy ESO numeracy
U.S. PISA YAFS population overall 15 17 78 79
From schools with more than 75% FRPL
28 up arrow
36 up arrow
68
62 down arrow

up arrow Percentage is significantly higher than the PISA YAFS population overall.

down arrow Percentage is significantly lower than the PISA YAFS population overall.

NOTE: ESO = Education and Skills Online. Estimates for 19-year-olds are for individuals who were 15-year-old students in fall 2012 and who participated PISA YAFS in 2016. Middle proficiency in PISA 2012 indicates levels 2 to 4. See exhibits 2 through 5 in PISA YAFS report for descriptions of proficiency levels. Data for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) was available for public schools only. For data for other subgroups, see tables A-6 to A-9 for literacy/reading and A-11 to A-14 for numeracy/mathematics in PISA YAFS report.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2012; and Program for International Student Assessment Young Adult Follow-up Study (PISA YAFS), 2016.

1 Note that the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch was available for public schools only.

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Correlation describes the strength of a relationship between two measures. In this report, analyses examine the correlation of ESO and PISA 2012 scores—or the degree to which performance at age 19 was associated with that at age 15.

  • U.S. 19-year-olds with higher literacy and numeracy scores in ESO tended to have had higher reading and mathematics scores in PISA 2012, respectively, at age 15. The correlation between ESO literacy and PISA 2012 reading is 0.59 and between ESO numeracy and PISA 2012 mathematics is 0.69, indicating strong positive relationships 1.
  • In both subjects, however, correlations were weaker for 19-year-olds who at age 15 had attended the most or the least economically challenged schools (i.e., those with more than 75 percent or less than 25 percent of students receiving FRPL) than for the PISA YAFS population overall.

1 Cohen's (1988) convention is used for interpreting correlation effect sizes. For more information, see section 2 of PISA YAFS report.

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The report also examined 19-year-olds’ education outcomes (degrees currently pursued, area of study currently pursued, and participation in nonformal education); workforce outcomes (employment status, combined employment and education status, and current occupation); and life outcomes (self-efficacy, life satisfaction, and vocational interests) in 2016 in relationship to their proficiency in PISA 2012 at age 15. Significant relationships were found for five of the nine outcome areas examined in the study (see Table D), including the following:

  • High reading and mathematics proficiency at age 15 was associated with higher education trajectories and other potentially advantageous life outcomes at age 19. The following examples are for high performers in reading, but the patterns apply to high performers in mathematics as well.

    • High performers in PISA 2012 reading were enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs at a higher rate (84 percent) than the population overall (45 percent) at age 19.
    • About 27 percent of high performers in PISA 2012 reading were pursuing a postsecondary degree in sciences and 15 percent in engineering at age 19, compared with 12 and 7 percent, respectively, in the population overall. Science and engineering are two fields that policymakers and researchers generally consider critical to meeting the workplace and problem-solving demands of the future (U.S. Department of Education 2018, 2020).

    Table D. Education, employment, and life outcomes for U.S. 19-year-old high and low performers in PISA 2012 relative to the PISA YAFS population overall: 2016

    More common compared to PISA YAFS population overall in 2016 Less common compared to PISA YAFS population overall in 2016
    High performers in PISA 2012 reading and mathematics (Level 5 or above)
    • Pursue a bachelor’s degree or higher
    • Study sciences or engineering
    • Study humanities 1
    • Are unemployed but not looking for work
    • Are in formal education only
    • Are interested in investigative vocations
    • Pursue pre-associate’s or associate’s degree
    • Work full time
    • Are unemployed and looking for work
    • Are interested in enterprising vocations
    Low performers in PISA 2012 reading and mathematics (Below level 2)
    • Are still pursuing a high school diploma
    • Are in employment only 2
    • Pursue a bachelor’s degree or higher
    • Study health 1
    • Study social science, sciences, or engineering 2
    • Are in both employment and education
    • Are interested in investigative vocations 2

    1 This outcome is statistically significant for reading only.

    2 This outcome is statistically significant for mathematics only.

    NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, all outcomes in the table are statistically significant for both reading and mathematics. Estimates for 19-year-olds are for individuals who were 15-year-old students in fall 2012 and who participated in PISA YAFS in 2016. High performers in PISA 2012 are those at proficiency level 5 and above; low performers are those below proficiency level 2. This table does not include outcomes for middle performers in PISA 2012 (levels 2–4) because there were no statistically significant differences between them and the population overall in either PISA 2012 reading or mathematics. See tables A-21 to A-26 in PISA YAFS report for related data. See exhibits 2 and 3 in PISA YAFS report for descriptions of proficiency levels. See appendix B in PISA YAFS report for additional detail on vocational interests.

    SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2012; and Program for International Student Assessment Young Adult Follow-up Study (PISA YAFS), 2016.

  • Low reading and mathematics proficiency at age 15 was associated with lower education trajectories at age 19. The following examples are for low performers in reading, but the patterns apply to low performers in mathematics as well.

    • Low performers in PISA 2012 reading (i.e., below level 2) were more commonly still in high school (23 percent) than the population overall (9 percent) at age 19.
    • Low performers in PISA 2012 reading were less commonly enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs (12 percent) than the population overall (45 percent) at this age.
  • Patterns of vocational interest at age 19 also differed based on proficiency in PISA 2012 at age 15. The following examples are for high performers in reading, but the patterns apply to high performers in mathematics as well.

    • High performers in PISA 2012 reading had a higher level of interest in investigative vocations than the population overall at age 19 (scoring 20 vs. 18, respectively, out of a total of 40 points 1). Investigative vocations include work that involves ideas and thinking rather than physical activity or leading people.
    • High performers in PISA 2012 reading had a lower level of interest in enterprising vocations than the population overall at age 19 (scoring 17 vs. 19, respectively). Enterprising vocations include work that involves starting up and carrying out business projects.

    1 The results on vocational interest come from 19-year-olds’ responses to survey about the degree to which they would like or dislike various activities across six dimensions originally identified in the Holland (1997) RIASEC model: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional. The questions were on a 5-point scale, and individuals’ responses were summed for each dimension and ranged from 0 to 40. The higher the score, the higher the interest in the given type of vocation. See appendix B in PISA YAFS report for additional details.

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