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James Woodworth, PhD
Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics

NCES Commissioner’s Statement on PIAAC 2017
November 15, 2019

Today, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is releasing results on the performance of U.S. adults on the 2017 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

The web report we are releasing today, entitled “Highlights of the 2017 U.S. PIAAC Results,” presents key findings about the literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving skills of U.S. adults ages 16 to 65, as well as information about major background characteristics.


PIAAC is an international, large-scale assessment developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and administered in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). PIAAC is designed to assess adults’ basic information-processing skills that are considered essential for full participation in the knowledge-based economies and societies of the 21st century.  Specifically, PIAAC measures three skill areas:

In addition, PIAAC also collects information on adults’ education, work experience, and other factors, to enrich our understanding of the data.
PIAAC is administered internationally to adults between the ages of 16 and 65. The PIAAC assessment is conducted in the official language(s) of the participating countries. In the United States, the direct assessment was conducted in English, while background information was collected in either English or Spanish. The direct assessment was administered on computers, with an optional paper-based assessment for those uncomfortable using a computer.  All background information was collected on the computer by an interviewer.

Between 2012 and 2017, adults were surveyed across three rounds of data collection in 38 participating countries. In the United States, NCES conducted all three rounds of data collections (in 2012, 2014, and 2017). In the first round, the U.S. collected data from a nationally representative sample of about 5,000 adults. The results of the first round of the U.S. data collections were released in October 2013.  The second round of data collection added 3,700 adults ages 16-74 to the original 2012 sample. The second round of U.S. data collection was not designed as a nationally representative sample but rather as a supplement to the 2012 sample, allowing the United States to learn more about three subgroups of interest: unemployed adults ages 16-65, young adults ages 16-34, and older adults (ages 66-74).

The results released today are based on the 2017 U.S. a nationally representative sample of 3,700 U.S. adults ages 16-74. While both the 2014 supplement and the 2017 data collection surveyed U.S. adults age 16 to 74, the focus of this report is on the traditional work force age range of 16 to 65. 

2017 Reported Results

This report highlights results across all three PIAAC domains and for the major variables of gender, age, race/ethnicity, educational attainment, current employment status, nativity, and self-reported health status.

For each PIAAC domain, results are reported in two ways: as average scores on a 100-400 effective scale and as percentages of adults performing at specific proficiency levels. Based on the tasks presented in the assessment items, six levels of proficiency have been defined for literacy and numeracy (from below Level 1 to Level 5) and four for digital problem solving (from below Level 1 to Level 3). In this report, the proficiency levels have been collapsed to three levels, denoting lower, middle, and higher performance.

The current report focuses on comparing the 2017 U.S. PIAAC results with the combined 2012/14 U.S. PIAAC results, indicating any statistically significant differences between the two years. Some comparisons of subgroups within the 2017 results are also discussed. 

All differences described are statistically significant at the .05 level. Differences that are not statistically significant are occasionally referred to as being "not measurably different."

Performance of U.S. Adults Ages 16-65 in 2017

The main findings in today’s report show that for U.S. adults age 16–65 there was no measurable improvement in their overall literacy, numeracy, or digital problem-solving skills in 2017, compared to the combined 2012/14 results.  In addition, the data highlight the large percentage of U.S. adults who lack basic skills:

When it comes to performance by race or ethnicity, I want to highlight two areas where we see change.  First, Hispanic adults' overall average scores improved in both literacy and digital problem solving.  As a result of these gains made by Hispanic adults, the White-Hispanic score gap narrowed in literacy and digital problem solving. Second, the overall average scores for Whites did not change across any of the three skill areas; however, the percentage of White adults who performed at the lowest levels in numeracy increased from 17 to 20 percent.

PIAAC also reports results based on nativity status—that is, it compares adults who were born in the United States and adults not born in the United States. In 2017, adults not born in the United States scored higher in both literacy and digital problem solving than in 2012/14.  Native-born U.S. adults showed no measurable changes in their average scores in any of the three skill areas.  However, looking at native-born adults with the lowest levels of literacy, we see they increased from 14 to 16 percent between these years.  In contrast, the percentage of non-native-born adults with the lowest levels of literacy decreased from 41 to 33 percent.

When it comes to educational attainment, or the highest level of education an adult has completed, we see two significant changes. The percentage of U.S. adults with less than a high school education decreased from the previous data collection. At the same time, the percentage with more than a high school education increased. The percentage with only a high school education remained the same.  As a result, the average adults’ amount of schooling has increased.  Second, although some adults had more schooling, among those with only a high school education, we saw decreases in their average literacy and numeracy scores.  This is consistent with the changes in the percentages for these adults in the lowest levels for these skill areas:  for numeracy they grew from 33 to 38 percent and for literacy from 20 to 25 percent.

The last finding I will highlight relates to how millennials compare to Baby Boomers. In PIAAC, millennials are represented by the 25 to 34 age range, and Baby Boomers in part by the 55 to 65 range. Millennials outscored Baby Boomers in literacy, basic math skills, and digital problem solving.

In conclusion, while recognizing improvements among Hispanic and non-native adults, and the related narrowing of some score gaps, it's troubling to see that there was no improvement for many groups, or overall. What we need are improvements across the board, in addition to narrowing score gaps.

For More Information

This statement highlights some of the major findings from the 2017 U.S. PIAAC results. Many more details are provided in the report, “Highlights of the 2017 U.S. Results,” which is available on the NCES website.  Note that the OECD is releasing a report today that includes the U.S. PIAAC data and that from five other countries: Ecuador, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, and Peru.  The U.S. highlights report does not include comparisons with data for other countries because the goal of the 2017 U.S. study was to track changes over time in the United States.   For more information on PIAAC and the 2017 U.S. results, please visit the PIAAC website at