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NCES Switches Out Adult Education Study

The National Center on Education Statistics has tabled its primary study of adult literacy in favor of a smaller, more targeted international assessment intended to gauge Americans' skills in a technologically advanced workplace. The move is part of the center's effort to rebalance its "portfolio" in the wake of budgetary changes and new administration priorities.

"Five years ago we were using different skills in the office than we are now," explained Val Plisko, associate commissioner for NCES' Early Childhood, International, and Crosscutting Studies Division. "It's intended to provide a broad brush indicator of how the U.S. relates to other countries."

The new Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC, will roll out with a field trial of 1500 adults in 20 states, before the full assessment of about 5,000 Americans ages 16 to 65 in 2011. The results will be compared with equal groups in 27 other countries. While NCES' current tracker, the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Study, or ALL, also allows international comparisons, PIAAC will be the first conducted via computer, incorporating what International Activities Program Director Dan McGrath called "problem-solving in a technology-rich environment."

For example, a participant will have to create and use a data spreadsheet to answer questions. The basic literacy questions will also be at "the higher end of literacy," Mr. McGrath said, noting that the computer-based assessment will allow for more critical thinking test items.

Andrew Tyskiewicz, president of the Commission on Adult Basic Education, praised the new questions. "Not that technology is the only set of skills we have to assess, but the reality is there are certain sets of professional skills that are performance based," Mr. Tyskiewicz said. "In the adult education field, the more you contextualize it, the better. We're all for that."
That said, the assessment's once-a-decade schedule and relatively small sample size are causing some consternation among adult education experts, particularly since NCES is not planning a bridge study between the two assessments now.

"Over the years, we rely on a lot of that data for planning and awareness activities to make that known to the general public," Mr. Tyskiewicz said.
It remains to be seen when and how the two assessments will be integrated. Mr. McGrath said NCES may attempt to administer at least the questionnaire portion of the assessment every five years, to shorten the gap between new information, but, he added, "That's completely up in the air."

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