Report analysing PIAAC data reveals that American youth is increasingly better educated but with lower skills


Educational Testing Service (ETS), an US based private non-profit educational testing and assessment organisation has examined PIAAC data for US.

PIAAC is the short version for Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, an OECD led project in 24 countries to examine the skills among adult populations. Here, PIAAC results complement the skills assessment of pupils with PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and AHELO (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes). Some of the initial analysis were published in late 2013.

ETS has examined PIAAC data for the US, and in particular for the so-called millenial generation that has been isolated from the total for this report. Their main starting point is that this is the best educated generation in the US history, but this generation also consistently appears to score below international average in literacy, numeracy and problem solving with technology.

Literacy in the PIAAC study is defined as “understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential”, and it was operationalised both as an ability to comprehend and decode text as well as using the text appropriately in context. The test did not measure actual writing skills. Numeracy was defined as “the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas, in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life” and its operationalisation included both understanding mathematical information, but also a wider understanding of mathematical content – such as quantity and number; dimension and shape; patterns, relationships and changes; and data and chance. The third skill in focus in the ETS report is “problem solving in technology-rich environments”. While on first glance somewhat cumbersome definition, in PIAAC this refers to digital skills, that is: “using digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks”. Here, a wide range of digital skills were evaluated.

The ETS report highlights how despite more education, the millenials from US scored amongst the worst of the countries participating in these three areas. The report argues the situation to be rather serious, and that consequences of such inequalities and inadequate skills is a challenge for the whole society: “The PIAAC results highlight deeper social issues concerning not only how we compete in a global economy, but also what kind of future we can construct when a sizable adult population—especially the millennials—lacks the skills necessary for higher-level employment and meaningful participation in our democratic institutions.” (p. 10 in the report)

Analysing the performance, even the top performing (90th percentile) scored lower than top scoring millenials in the other countries. The scores also showed a high degree of inequality between the top performing and lowest performing scores in comparison to other participating countries.

This picture emerges despite larger shares of the cohort having high school or above high school education, and US having over average rates of the cohort with tertiary education. The report raises questions on whether focusing on education attainment alone are sufficient, when the output of educational attainment falls short in comparison with international peers. This is particularly worrisome considering the skyrocketing levels of student debt in the US.

Overall, the report highlights some essential concerns in US educational system in the years to come, as it is argued that unless these issues are resolved, this can contribute to an overall economic stagnation. Furthermore, this also highlights that “simply providing more education may not hold all the answers“, it is also a question on the kind of education that is provided.

Read and download the report here.