Commissioner, National Center for Education Statistics
NCES Statement on PIAAC 2012
October 18, 2013
Today, the National Center for Education Statistics is releasing results from the 2012 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).
Overall, the U.S. adult population performed below the international average in all three PIAAC subject areas (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments). While the United States ranked higher in literacy compared to other countries than it did in numeracy or problem solving in technology-rich environments, the biggest differences between the U.S. and the international averages were among low performers. The United States had a higher percentage of low performers than the international average in all subject areas. However, the percentages of top performers in the United States were either similar to or slightly lower than the international average in all domains.
PIAAC is an international large-scale assessment developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD). The first round of data collection was conducted in 2011–12 in 23 OECD and partner countries. It is an innovative assessment that was administered using both computer-based and paper-and-pencil tests. Eighty percent of the sample in the United States took the computer-based tests, and 15 percent took the paper-and-pencil tests.
About 150,000 adults (5,000-plus per country) were surveyed in 23 countries and subnational regions. A probability sample was used to obtain a nationally representative sample of the target population: non-institutionalized adults, ages 16–65, residing in the country at the time of data collection, irrespective of nationality, citizenship, or language status. In the United States, the study was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 5,000 adults from the target population in 2011–12.
The PIAAC assessment was conducted in the official language or majority language of the participating countries. In the United States, the assessment was conducted in English. However, background information was collected in either English or Spanish. About 4 percent of the sample did not take the assessment because of language difficulties or learning or mental disabilities, and another 1 percent did not take it for other reasons. The PIAAC background questionnaire collected extensive information on education, training, workforce participation, the use of information and communication technologies at work and in everyday life, and a range of generic skills required of individuals in their work.
PIAAC builds on the knowledge and experience gained from previous international adult assessments—the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) conducted in 1994 and the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL) conducted in 2003.
How PIAAC Is Reported
Results from PIAAC are reported on a scale from 0 to 500 for all subject areas. Based on the tasks presented in the assessment items, proficiency levels have been defined for specific average scores in each PIAAC scale; respondents who score at or above that level are considered proficient in the skills defined for that level. Six proficiency levels have been defined for literacy and numeracy (below level 1 and levels 1 through 5), and four have been defined for problem solving in technology-rich environments (below level 1 and levels 1 through 3). Because few adults performed at level 5 in literacy and numeracy, we have combined levels 4 and 5 (level 4/5) in the results reported here.
All differences described here using PIAAC data are statistically significant at the .05 level. Differences that are not statistically significant are referred to as being "similar" or "not significantly different."
U.S. Performance in Literacy
The U.S. average score in literacy (270) was below the international average (273), with 12 countries ranking above the United States. We performed on the same level as England and Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, Austria, and Cyprus, while outperforming Poland, Ireland, France, Spain, and Italy.
Seven countries had higher percentages of adults reaching the top proficiency level (4/5) in literacy than the United States. The percentages at the top level varied from 23 percent in Japan to 3 percent in Italy. The United States had a similar percentage of the population reaching the top level (12 percent) as the international average. The percentage of the population at the lowest proficiency levels was higher in the United States than it was on average internationally.
Performance of Subgroups in the United States
Young adults (ages 16 to 24) in the United States performed lower on average than their peers internationally. While for all adults, five countries had lower scores than the United States, for young adults, only two countries (Spain and Italy) had lower scores. In fact, only U.S. adults ages 45 to 65 performed at the same level as or higher than the international average; U.S. adults in all other age groups (from ages 16 to 44) performed lower than their international peers.
U.S. adults who attained no more than a high school education performed lower on average than their peers internationally. Adults who attained either associate's, bachelor's, or higher degrees performed on a par with their international peers.
Race/ethnicity is not reported internationally, but in the United States, on average, Whites scored higher in literacy than either Blacks or Hispanics.
Other gaps in literacy exist across a whole spectrum of socioeconomic characteristics. In the United States, the gaps between those with parents with high and low levels of education and between those born inside and outside the country were higher than the gaps internationally.
The U.S. literacy gap between males and females was similar to the gap internationally. Meanwhile, our youngest and oldest adults performed more similarly to each other than did the youngest and oldest adults internationally. Adults reporting poor or fair health and those reporting excellent or very good health had a larger gap in average literacy scores than the international average.
Trends in Performance in Literacy
Our overall scores have not changed significantly since 2003, but they were lower in 2012 than they were in 1994.
U.S. Performance in Numeracy
U.S. adults scored below the international average in numeracy, with 18 countries ranking above the United States. We performed on the same level as Ireland and France, but higher than Italy and Spain.
Fifteen countries had higher percentages of adults reaching the top proficiency level (4/5) in numeracy than the United States, and the U.S. percentage (9 percent) was lower than the international average (12 percent). The percentage of adults at the top numeracy proficiency level ranged from 19 percent (Finland, Japan, and Sweden) to 4 percent (Spain). The percentage of the population at the lowest proficiency levels was higher in the United States than it was on average internationally.
Performance of Subgroups in the United States
Among young adults (ages 16–24), the U.S. numeracy score was below the international average, and only one country (Italy) had a numeracy score that was not significantly different from ours, putting the United States at the bottom of the ranking. In fact, unlike literacy, in numeracy, U.S. adults across all age groups performed lower than the international average.
U.S. adults also performed lower than the international average across all educational levels, labor force participation statuses, income levels, and levels of health. Looking at racial and ethnic groups within the United States, Whites scored higher in numeracy than either Blacks or Hispanics.
The gap in average numeracy scores across parental educational levels was larger in the United States than it was on average internationally, while the gap in the United States between those born in the country and outside the country was not significantly different from the international average.
The gap in numeracy scores between genders in the United States was also similar to the international average. Our youngest and oldest adults performed more similarly to each other than did the youngest and oldest adults internationally. Finally, the gap between those reporting poor or fair health and those reporting excellent or very good health was larger in the United States than it was internationally.
Trends in Performance in Numeracy
U.S. numeracy scores saw a decline from 2003 to 2012. International numeracy results are not available before 2003.
U.S. Performance in Problem Solving in Technology-rich Environments
In problem solving in technology-rich environments, the U.S. average score was not significantly different from the average scores in 4 countries (England and Northern Ireland-United Kingdom, Estonia, Ireland, and Poland) and was lower than the average scores in 14 other countries and the international average.
Six percent of U.S. adults assessed in problem solving in technology-rich environments reached the top level (level 3). This was lower than in eight countries, as well as lower than the international average. The percentage of adults reaching the top level ranged from 13 percent (Japan) to 5 percent (the Slovak Republic, Ireland, and Korea).
Performance of Subgroups in the United States
U.S. adults ages 16-24 scored below the international average in problem-solving in technology rich environments. Meanwhile, U.S. adults ages 55–65 had higher average scores than their peers internationally.
Those whose education level was at the high school level or below had lower scores in problem solving in technology-rich environments than their international peers. Employed and unemployed U.S. adults performed lower than their international peers, as did those who were out of the labor force.
Across racial and ethnic categories in the United States, Whites performed better than either Blacks or Hispanics.
The gaps in the United States were similar to the international averages across various socioeconomic factors and gender and health status. The exception was again the gap between the youngest and oldest adults—the gap in the United States was smaller than the international average.
For More Information
This statement highlights some of the major findings from PIAAC 2012 from the U.S. perspective; the "Literacy, Numeracy, Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments among U.S. Adults." report, available on the NCES website, provides many more details. Also, other findings are available in the OECD's report on PIAAC 2012. For more information on PIAAC and the U.S. PIAAC 2012 results, please visit the PIAAC website at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/.