Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Larger proportions of adults in the United States than in other countries have poor literacy and numeracy skills
This first OECD Skills Outlook presents the initial results of the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), which evaluates the skills of adults in 24 countries. It provides insights into the availability of some of the key skills and how they are used at work and at home. A major component is the direct assessment of key information-processing skills: literacy, numeracy and problem solving in the context of technology-rich environments.
• Larger proportions of adults in the United States than in other countries have poor literacy and numeracy skills, and the proportion of adults with poor skills in problem solving in technology-rich environments is slightly larger than the average, despite the relatively high educational attainment among adults in the United States.
• Socio-economic economic background has a stronger impact on adult literacy skills in the United States than in other countries. Black and Hispanic adults are substantially over-represented in the low-skilled population.
# In the United States, the mean proficiency score of 16-65 year-olds in literacy is significantly below the average of the OECD countries participating in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). In numeracy, the mean proficiency score is also significantly below the average.
# In the United States, the younger adult population (16-24 year-olds) scores significantly below the average in literacy of the OECD countries participating in the Survey. In numeracy, they score significantly below the average. In both domains, younger adults score higher than their older counterparts (55-65 year-olds).
# In the United States, 9.3% of the adult population (16-65 year-olds) report no prior experience with computers or lack very basic computer skills. In contrast, 31% of the adult population score at the highest levels in problem solving in technology-rich environments, a proportion significantly below the average of the OECD countries participating in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC).
# In most participating countries, a significant minority have a very low level proficiency in literacy and numeracy. This is also true for the United States, where 17.5% of the adults score at the lowest levels in literacy and 28.7% in numeracy.
Social background has a strong impact on skills in some countries...
In England/Northern Ireland (UK), Germany, Italy, Poland and the United States, social background has a major impact on literacy skills. In these countries more so than in others, the children of parents with low levels of education have significantly lower proficiency than those whose parents have higher levels of education, even after taking other factors into account.
…but Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden combine above-average performance with a high level of equity.
Interestingly, the data show no relationship between a country’s average literacy skills and the impact of social background on those skills, suggesting that high average proficiency does not need to come at the expense of social inequities. Japan, and to a lesser extent Australia, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, combine above-average performance with a high level of equity. France, Germany, Poland and the United States all show both below-average performance and large social disparities.
The fact that the countries with the greatest social inequities in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are also those with low rates of social mobility as observed in the Survey of Adult Skills suggests that the relationship between social disadvantage and lower skills proficiency may be established early in individuals’ lives.
In Korea and the United States, the relationship between socio-economic background and skills proficiency is much weaker among younger adults than among older adults.
Moreover, the relationship between parents’ education and skills proficiency varies across generations. In Korea and the United States, for example, the relationship between socio-economic background and skills proficiency is much weaker among younger adults than among older adults. In Australia and the Slovak Republic, the reverse is true. In some countries, improvements in access to and the quality of education for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds have weakened the relationship between socio-economic background and skills proficiency among younger adults. In others, the ways in which skills are developed and used later in life may reinforce initial social disparities. For example, in some contexts access to school may be closely related to social background while subsequent skills development may primarily reflect an individual’s ability, irrespective of his or her social background. Either way, breaking the cycle of disadvantage across generations and enhancing social mobility is a key policy goal – and challenge.