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Peggy G. Carr, Ph.D.
Acting Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics

NCES Statement on PIAAC 2012/2014
March 10, 2016

Commissioner Peggy G. Carr's Briefing Slides MS PowerPoint (2.42 MB)

Today, the National Center for Education Statistics is releasing a First Look report entitled "Skills of U.S. Unemployed, Young, and Older Adults in Sharper Focus," which presents updated and new results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

Overall, the U.S. adult population performed on par with the international average in literacy and below the international average in 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 (also called "digital problem solving"), the biggest differences between U.S. adults and their international peers were among low performers. The United States had a higher percentage of low performers than the international average in all subject areas. The percentage of top performers in the United States in numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments was slightly lower than the international average in those domains.

Other key findings include the following:

About PIAAC

PIAAC is an international large-scale assessment developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD). The data in today's release come from both the first and second round of data collection in the United States. The first round was conducted in 201112 in 23 OECD and partner countries and the United States. The second round of data collection, in just the United States, was conducted in 201314.

PIAAC measures key information-processing skills considered essential for successful and full participation in the knowledge-based economies and societies of the 21st century. PIAAC is an innovative assessment that is administered using both computer-based and paper-and-pencil assessments. Eighty percent of the sample in the United States took the computer-based assessment, and 15 percent took the paper-and-pencil assessment.

The PIAAC assessment is conducted in the official language or majority language of the participating countries. In the United States, the direct assessment was conducted in English. However, background information was collected in either English or Spanish.

In the first round of PIAAC in 2011-12, around 150,000 adults, ages 16-65, were surveyed in 24 countries, , including the United States, with a minimum sample size of 5,000 nationally representative adults per country or subnational region. The results from the first round of PIAAC were released in 2013.

This second round of data collection in the United States, called the National Supplement, approximately 3,700 more adults aged 16-74 to the original 2012 sample. The supplemental data allow the United States to know more about three subgroups of interest by increasing the sample size of unemployed adults age 16-65, and young adults age 16-34, and expanding the sample to include older adults age 66-74.

The results released today are based on the combined 2012/2014 nationally representative sample of 8,700 non-institutionalized adults, ages 1674, living in households in the United States.

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 measurably different."

U.S. Performance in Literacy for Adults 16-65

The U.S. average score in literacy (272) was not measurably different than the international average score (273). Seven countries ranked above the United States and we performed at the same level as Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, England and Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, Germany, Korea, and Slovak Republic, while outperforming Cypress, Poland, Ireland, France, Spain, and Italy.

Compared with the PIAAC international average distribution of literacy skills, the United States had a larger percentage of adults performing at both the top (13 versus 12 percent at Level 4/5) and the bottom of the distribution (18 versus 16 percent at Level 1 and below).

U.S. Performance in Numeracy for Adults 16-65

In numeracy, the U.S. average score was 12 points lower than the PIAAC international average score (257 versus 269). Sixteen countries ranked above the United States and we performed on the same level as Poland and Ireland, while outperforming France, Italy, and Spain.

Compared with the international average distributions of numeracy skills, the United States had a smaller percentage at the top (10 versus 12 percent), and a larger percentage at the bottom (28 versus 19 percent).

U.S. Performance in Problem Solving In Technology-Rich Environments for Adults 16-65

As with numeracy, the U.S. average score in problem solving in technology-rich environments was below the international average (274 versus 283). No countries scored below the United States and we performed on the same level as only one other country: Poland.

Compared with the international average distributions of skills in problem solving in technology-rich environments, the United States had a smaller percentage at the top (5 versus 8 percent), and a larger percentage at the bottom proficiency levels (64 versus 55 percent).

Performance of U.S. Unemployed Adults Age 16-65

A larger percentage of U.S. adults who were unemployed or out of the labor force performed at the bottom literacy proficiency levels than those who were employed. Over half (54 percent) of unemployed U.S. adults age 16-65 had a high school credential and 23 percent did not finish high school. Roughly a third of these unemployed adults who had a high school credential or less education performed at the bottom proficiency levels in literacy (26 to 38 percent) and about half performed at the bottom proficiency levels in numeracy (47 to 58 percent).

Performance of U.S. Young Adults Age 16-34

Sixty-nine percent of U.S. young adults age 16-34 attained a high school credential or less education, whereas the average in other participating PIAAC countries was 73 percent. Yet, in all three domains, a larger percentage of U.S. young adults with a high school diploma or below performed at the bottom proficiency levels than their international peers. A different pattern is seen in literacy among those with a college degree or higher: a larger percentage of U.S. young adults with a higher education degree performed at the top literacy proficiency levels than their international peers.

Performance of U.S. Older Adults Age 66-74

At the highest education levels (graduate or professional degree and bachelor's degree), there were no measurable differences in the percentage of older U.S. adults age 66-74 who performed at the top literacy proficiency level. This is different from the pattern among young adults.

A larger percentage of older U.S. adults who reported that their health status was "fair" performed at the bottom literacy proficiency levels than those who reported that their health status was "good," "very good," or "excellent."

Performance of U.S. Adults Age 16-74 by Age

In literacy, the percentages of adults performing at the top proficiency level were larger for adults age 25-34 and 35-44 than for adults at the other 10-year age intervals. In numeracy, the results were similar; the percentages of adults performing at the top proficiency level were larger for those age 25-34 and 35-44 than those age 55-65 and 66-74.

For More Information

This statement highlights some of the major findings from U.S. 2014 National Supplement to PIAAC. The "Skills of U.S. Unemployed, Young, and Older Adults in Sharper Focus" report, available on the NCES website, provides many more details. For more information on PIAAC and the 2012/2014 U.S. results, please visit the PIAAC website at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/.

Commissioner Peggy G. Carr's Briefing Slides MS PowerPoint (2.42 MB)

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