OVAE Connection - Issue 171 - October 31, 2013

OVAE Connection

                                                      OVAE Connection - Issue 171 - October 31, 2013

PIAAC Results Released

On Oct. 8, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the results of the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, (PIAAC). This direct assessment was conducted with nationally representative samples from 23 countries from adults ages 16 through 65. It is an international household survey to assess the cognitive and workplace skills needed for success in the 21st-century global economy. The results are designed to help public, private, educational, and philanthropic sectors work with a shared language and set of benchmarks to enhance cooperation around the development and implementation of economic, education, and social policies that strengthen adult skills. The survey is intended to be administered every 10 years, making this a baseline report to set benchmarks against which countries and sectors can measure their improvement efforts. Multiple reports, datasets, and several data tools were released with the results, including:

On Nov. 12, 2013, the OECD-authored report, Time for the United States to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says, will be released. This report was funded by OVAE to offer a more detailed profile of low-skilled adults in the U.S. It will also identify policy implications and offer broad policy recommendations for the U.S.

Links to all of these resources, as well as events and press coverage, may be found at www.piaacgateway.com.

This article relies heavily on data included in the NCES “First Look” report. Further analysis of the PIAAC data will appear in future issues of OVAE Connection.

The Survey

The PIAAC assessment focuses on the working-age adult population, and measures cognitive and workplace skills necessary for successful participation in the 21st century society and global economy. In the U.S., as in all of the countries participating, 5,000 individuals were surveyed to create a nationally representative dataset. An additional 5,000 people will be surveyed for a supplement that will be added to the data set in 2015.

Drawing from a rich background questionnaire, the PIAAC measures relationships among respondents’ educational background, parental educational attainment, work history and skills, occupational attainment, use of information and communications technology, and cognitive skills in the domains of literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments.

Findings are presented in the First Look report as country averages, and tables are used to place countries’ performances above, at, or below the international average. Within each domain, performance is also reported as a percentage of the population that performs in five levels of proficiency: Below Level 1, Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, and combined Levels 4/5, Level descriptors can be found in the First Look report in Exhibit B-1 for literacy, B-3 for numeracy, and B-5 for problem-solving in a technology-rich environment. Performance below Level 2 is considered “weak” or “low.”

The assessment is unique in that it is the first international literacy survey that is both adaptive and administered on a laptop computer. Given as a household survey, respondents were allowed to choose whether to take the assessment on a laptop or with pencil and paper. In the U.S., nearly 80 percent of respondents completed the survey on the computer, which means that they passed an initial screening test on basic computer use and navigation.

The direct measure of cognitive and workplace skills in this study creates a much more nuanced perspective on skills than the more commonly reported measure of educational attainment. For example, the attainment category of “some college,” which appears on many surveys of adult skills, says very little about the knowledge, skills, and abilities of an individual, and is rarely accompanied by information on the courses taken, training completed, and skills gained. Having more information about skills, including where they are learned and how they are used, as this survey provides, will inform educators, workforce development stakeholders, human resource personnel, employers, and policymakers about the mechanisms that are effective in increasing the skill and talent inventory in regions, sectors, and across the country.

Key Findings

On three domains (literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in a technology-rich environment) the U.S. average performance is significantly lower than the international average. Within domains, the U.S. profile shows a large portion of adults with skills below Level 2, and small percentages of adults with strong skills in the upper level.

In the literacy domain, the U.S. average percentile performance is 270; the international average is 273. Within the domain, the U.S. profile shows 4 percent at Below Level 1, 14 percent at Level 1, 34 percent at Level 2, 36 percent at Level 3, and 12 percent at the combined Level 4/5. The U.S. has an equivalent percentage of adults in the highest level as the international average, 12 percent (see First Look, Figure 2A).

In the numeracy domain, the U.S. average performance is 253; the international average is 269. Within the domain, the U.S. profile shows 10 percent at Below Level 1, 20 percent at Level 1, 34 percent at Level 2, 27 percent at Level 3, and 9 percent at the combined Level 4/5. The U.S. has a lower percentage of adults in the highest level than the international average, which is 12 percent (see First Look, Figure 2B).

In problem-solving in a technology-rich environment, the U.S. average performance is 277; the international average is 283. Within the domain, which reports only four levels, the U.S. profile shows 20 percent at Below Level 1, 41 percent at Level 1, 33 percent at Level 2, and 6 percent at Level 3. The U.S. has a lower percentage of adults in the highest level than the international average, which is 8 percent (see First Look, Figure 2C).

The PIAAC item framework is aligned to previous international literacy assessments, allowing trend analysis for the past 20 years. The First Look report shows that the average U.S. literacy score for adults on the PIAAC is not significantly lower than it was in 2003-08 as reported on the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), but is lower than the average score was in 1994-98 as reported on the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL) (Tables 1-A and 1-B). The average U.S. numeracy score on the PIAAC is lower than it was in 2003-08 as reported in the IALS.


These survey findings show that the U.S. has significant basic skill weaknesses within the adult working-age population in comparison to other industrialized countries. This skill profile has negative implications for the growth and strength of the U.S. economy and middle class. Although two-thirds of the low-skilled respondents in the U.S. sample are employed, they are not employed in jobs with high wages.

The findings show that work tasks influence skills. Adults who report frequently using literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills in their daily work routines have greater proficiencies in those skills. The reverse is also shown in the data: Workers in low-skilled jobs may have fewer opportunities to use and enhance their skills (see First Look, Figures 8 A, B, and C).

Weak skills have implications for civic life as well, as has been demonstrated in previous surveys of adult literacy. Adults with weak skills are less likely to vote or volunteer in their communities, and more likely to suffer poor health. In fact, adults with low skills are four times more likely to report “fair” or “poor” health than those with strong skills (see First Look, Figures 10 A, B, and C). This relationship is twice as strong as the international average.

Moreover, a concerning trend emerges in this data set. Unlike most other countries surveyed, in the U.S., younger cohorts’ skills are not surpassing the older cohorts’ skills. This has serious implications for the future of our workforce and underscores the need for continuing education and training.

Watch OVAE Connection and the OVAE Blog for information on ways to participate in person or virtually in the event on Nov. 12 at the Center for American Progress which will release Time for the U.S. to Reskill? and explore the policy implications of the findings in this report.