National Center for Education Statistics Report Shows American Adults Not Improving on Literacy, Numeracy, or Digital Problem-Solving Skills
- Hispanic and non-native-born adults showed hints of improvement
- Many Americans struggle with the most basic of math skills
- Need to better equip them with the numeracy skills required for success, starting in middle and high school
Twenty-nine percent of American adults performed at the lowest level for numeracy on a major international study, according to a new report released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Nineteen percent performed at the lowest level for literacy and, among adults who felt comfortable taking the assessment on a computer, 24 percent lacked basic digital problem-solving abilities.
Although overall scores for US adults age 16–65 were not measurably different in literacy, numeracy, or digital problem solving in 2017 compared to combined results from 2012 and 2014, some groups did show improvement, including Hispanic and non-native-born adults.
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The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is an international study of working-age adults that measures the basic cognitive and workplace skills needed for successful participation in today’s society and the global economy—from reading simple passages to estimating how much gas is in 24-gallon tank if the gas gauge reads three-quarters full.
“These results are another signal that many Americans struggle with the most basic of math skills,” said NCES Associate Commissioner Peggy Carr. “There has long been a policy focus on improving literacy. But these new PIAAC data, combined with what we’re seeing in other national and international studies, show that we need to better equip Americans with the numeracy skills that they need for success, starting in middle and high school.”
PIAAC assesses adult skills in three domains—literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving—and collects information on adults’ education, work experience, and other background factors. Literacy refers to the ability to understand, use, and respond appropriately to written texts. Numeracy refers to the ability to use basic mathematical and computational skills. And digital problem solving means the ability to access and interpret information in digital environments to perform practical tasks.
In 2017, the third US PIAAC data collection took place. In this report, the results of the first round of US PIAAC data collection in 2012 and the second round in 2014 (officially known as the National Supplement to the Main Study) are combined, by design, into one comparative 2012/14 data point. Results are presented for the major variables of gender, age, race/ethnicity, educational attainment, current employment status, nativity, and self-reported health status.
Hispanic adults’ overall scores improved in both literacy and digital problem solving. Further, the percentage of Hispanic adults who performed at the lowest level for literacy decreased by about 10 percentage points, while the percentage of Hispanic adults at the highest level for digital problem solving increased by about 10 points.
Non-native-born US adults scored higher in both literacy and digital problem solving between 2012/14 and 2017. While native-born US adults showed no measurable changes in average scores for any of the three areas in the same time frame, a higher percentage of native-born adults performed at the lowest level in literacy in 2017, whereas that percentage decreased for non-native-born adults.
Significant performance gaps exist between White adults and all other race/ethnicity categories, with White adults continuing to outperform adults who are Black, Hispanic, or Other race/ethnicity across almost all skill areas—except for digital problem solving, where the average score for White adults was comparable with that of adults in the Other race/ethnicity category.
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The White–Black score gaps were large in literacy (41 points), numeracy (53 points), and digital problem solving (32 points) in 2017 (similar to the gaps in 2012/14). The White–Hispanic score gap narrowed in two of the three subject areas (from 49 to 31 points in literacy and from 26 to 10 points in digital problem solving) as a result of improvements among Hispanic adults. In addition, while there was a 14-point White–Other race/ethnicity score gap in digital problem solving in 2012/14, there was no measurable difference in scores in 2017.
“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,” said NCES Commissioner James Lynn Woodworth.
Additional key findings for US adults age 16–65 include:
- The percentage of adults with less than a high school education decreased from 14 percent to 12 percent, and the percentage with more than a high school education increased from 45 percent to 48 percent.
- Adults attaining higher education levels scored higher than those with comparatively lower education levels in both literacy and numeracy.
- In digital problem solving, the average score for adults with a high school education was not measurably different from those with less than a high school education.
- Adults age 25–34 scored higher in 2017 than most other age groups across all three skill areas, while adults age 55–65 tended to score lower than most other age groups across all three skill areas.
- Adults age 35–44 scored higher in digital problem solving in 2017 compared to 2012/14. No other age groups’ scores changed significantly for any of the three skills areas.
- As in 2012/14, adults in the three youngest age groups (16–24, 25–34, 35–44) scored higher in digital problem solving than the two oldest age groups (45–54 and 55–65).
- Males’ average score in numeracy decreased between 2012/14 and 2017, though they still scored higher than females on average.
- As in 2012/14, there were no statistically significant gender gaps in literacy or digital problem-solving scores in 2017.
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