U. S. Adults Perform Below International Average in Numeracy, Literacy and Problem Solving

By 10/08/2013

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“And, besides, we walked 6 miles to school every day, snowstorm or not.”  As it turns out the old codger may have been right.  According to the first-ever international survey of the skills of the adult population in 23 nations, the United States is performing below average.  The crusty old codgers—those 55-64–turn out to be the only U. S. age cohort that stands up to the international competition on the numeracy (math) test administered by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

Overall, the United States ranks 19 out of 23 in the math test that PIAAC administered.  Those findings for U. S. adults are consistent with the results for 15-year old students in the United States—they rank 32nd out of 65—reported by my colleagues and me in our recent book, Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School. The adult rankings differ only because PIAAC was administered to just 23 industrialized nations, while our report is based upon tests given to a broader list of nations that included many developing countries.

When our book appeared a couple of months ago, critics complained that our survey of high school student performance was misleading, as math skills could be acquired later on in college or on the job.  Now PIAAC has demonstrated that a country with less effective schools is a country with a less skilled work force.

On the literacy test and on the test that measured the ability to problem-solve in technology rich environments, the United States also scored below the international average.  So much for the claim that the United States teaches people to be creative and solve problems.

Gaps in numeracy between those with a college degree and those who did not complete high school were larger in the United States than elsewhere (on average), implying that part of the problem is the inadequate schooling provided for the least advantaged in our society.

But the challenges go well beyond the disadvantaged.   Only 9 percent of U. S. adults performed at the highest proficiency levels in math, a percentage that was lower than levels attained in 15 countries, including Japan, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Australia, Austria, Germany, Canada, The Slovak Republic and others beside.

Only the old codgers did as well on the math (numeracy) test as their peers across the world.  This is not surprising.  The United States once had the best educational system in the world.  Kids not only walked to school; they learned something when they got there.  But that day seems to have faded away.  Unfortunately, the United States can no longer live on the great educational system it once enjoyed.

Admittedly, a higher percentage of U. S. students performed very well on the literacy test.  Twelve percent of U. S. adults had high-end literacy skills, but that record falls short of the skills demonstrated by adults in Japan, Finland, Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, Norway and Canada.

Why can’t the United States perform at the same level as the Canadians?  If they could, our study shows, the economic returns to the nation would be enormous over the course of the 21st Century.   The economic returns would be so great workers could find their wages shifted upward by as much as 20 percent.  Even if a portion of that were used to pay off the national debt, that would still be a nice piece of change.

-Paul E. Peterson

Comment on this article
  • JB says:

    Well isn’t that special! I hope Diane Ravitch is able to read this. Her latest missive and boilerplate solutions are not going to solve this…all the kings horses and all the kings men…won’t either.

  • Tom Sticht says:


    Key PIAAC Finding: Adult Literacy and Numeracy Surplus In OECD Nations

    Tom Sticht International Consultant in Adult Education

    On October 8, 2013 the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) reported the finding that U. S. adults performed below the average of OECD countries on literacy, numeracy, and technology tests.

    This lead U. S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to say that “Adults who have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems and using technology will find the doors of the 21st century workforce closed to them. “We need to find ways to challenge and reach more adults to upgrade their skills.”

    However, in addition to reporting about the international standings of nations on the literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills of adults, the PIAAC has reported that in the United States and among each of its member states there is an overall surplus of education, literacy, and numeracy skills among the employed workforces over what their jobs require.

    In the United States, some 20 percent of U. S. adults are overqualified in education for the work they are doing while 13 percent are under-qualified in terms of the education level needs of their jobs. Overall, over two-thirds (67 percent) appear to be well-matched to the education demands of their jobs. Overall, then, some 87 percent of working adults in the U. S. are qualified or over-qualified for their jobs in terms of the education qualifications needed.

    In terms of literacy skills, only some 4 percent of U. S. workers lacked the skill level needed by their jobs, while 9 percent exceeded the literacy skills demands of their jobs and 87 percent were well-matched to the needs for literacy in their jobs. So some 96 percent of workers are meeting or exceeding the demands for 21st century literacy skills.

    Similarly, some 3 percent lacked the needed numeracy skills for their jobs while about 10 percent of adults were over-skilled in numeracy for their jobs and 87 percent were well-matched in their skills and job demands for numeracy skills. So some 97 percent of workers are meeting or exceeding the demands for 21st century numeracy skills.

    These PIAAC findings suggest that we should temper such claims as “The demand for skilled workers far exceeds the current supply…” because the “hard” evidence is not there to support such claims. This in no way lessens the importance of the numerous findings of correlations among literacy (and other cognitive ) skills and further education, better occupational opportunities and higher earnings. There are still likely to be very few paths to a better standard of living in industrialized nations that are to at least some extent under the control of the individual as getting as much education and developing as much literacy and other intellectual, creative, and interpersonal “skills” as one can.

    For adult literacy education policy, there would seem to be a need to emphasize the many benefits of literacy education in addition to those related to improving one’s job opportunities. Improvements in health related activities, caring better for one’s children, improving
    children’s educational achievements, enjoying a broader range of informational and entertainment resources, prolonging one’s life, with reductions in medical expenses, are all among other benefits of adult literacy education in addition to workforce related impacts.

    Speaking of her work in adult literacy education in the United States to help African American adults obtain the vote in the middle of the 20th century, Septima Poinsette Clark, known as the Queen Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, expressed inherent values of attaining literacy:

    “How can anybody estimate the worth of pride achieved, hope accomplished, faith affirmed, citizenship won? These are intangible things but real nevertheless, solid and of inestimable value.”

    These are things not measured in the PIAAC. But they are the 21st century building blocks for the motivational foundation for teachers to teach and adults to seek and succeed in adult literacy education.


  • Karl Wheatley says:

    Well, interestingly, researchers have found that creativity has been going down since the beginning of the standards movement. Similarly, critical thinking and problem-solving are reliably better in students coming from more open-ended/constructivist education programs–a finding that goes back to the comparisons of open education vs. traditional instruction (Walberg, 1986).

    We have chosen an approach to educational policy that does not improve our academic trajectory, but that does hurt so-called soft skills. We hide the damage that is being caused between tough-sounding rhetoric such as “rigor” and “greater accountability.”

    The idea that our schools were better “back then” simply doesn’t hold up to empirical scrutiny. In the 50s, the media blasted the schools for mediocrity, and if you insist on testing test scores so much, the 2008 NAEP scores for reading and math are higher than the 1973 scores were–for Whites AND Blacks and HISPANICS, for all 3 ages tested. Schools today are serving a more diverse student body and are offering a far more challenging and varied curriculum to more students than they were in the 50s or 60s.

    WWII is long gone, Europe has rebuilt, other countries joined the developed nations, and the world has become flatter.

    We can and should do better, and so should other nations, but the primary challenges to US prosperity have very little to do with our test scores. We have chosen economic policies that favor the few and hurt the many, and this not only makes the distribution of the pie more unequal, but it also makes the pie grow more slowly. We have also chosen bizarrely ideological policies (cutting spending on infrastructure and science R&D) based solely on the wish of some to make gov’t so small they can “drown it in a bathtub”–not noticing that what they are really drowning in a bathtub are America’s chances for continued strength and broad prosperity.

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