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America's Literacy, Numeracy Problems Don't End in K-12, Global Test Shows

On the heels of a troubling "report card" on reading and math skills among American students, a global test of adult skills suggests older generations may echo those problems.

The 2017 results of the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies finds that America's adult workforce is no more skillful in reading, math, or digital problem-solving than it was five years ago, even though more students are graduating from high school.

Every three years, the PIAAC measures the literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving skills of "working age" adults, 16 to 65, in 38 countries, including 23 in 2011-12, and another nine in 2014-15. In both math and digital problem-solving skills, U.S. adults scored significantly below the international average:

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In the United States, scores in all three domains have been statistically flat since 2014. While white and black adults saw no change, Hispanic adults improved in both literacy and digital problem-solving, mirroring similar gains among Hispanic students on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

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To put those results into context, as of 2017, 52 percent of U.S. adults read at one of PIAAC's two lowest levels of five. One in 3 U.S. adults read at the test's basic level, the second lowest. That means they could read well enough to recognize common vocabulary and enter their personal information into an online form—but not well enough to identify information within a document or compare and contrast information in different texts. One in 5 adults didn't even meet that basic bar. 

In math, 70 percent of American adults could perform elementary-level math tasks that were "explicit or visual with relatively few distractors," like whole numbers, percents, fractions, and interpreting simple tables and graphs. But nearly 30 percent performed at the lowest two levels, meaning they were comfortable only with very basic arithmetic, counting, sorting, and similar tasks. 

The digital problem-solving assessment looked at how well adults could navigate amid technology, use online tools, and so on. Three-quarters of U.S. adults could use familiar online tools such as browsers and email, but more than 60 percent were less adept at navigating through different sites, using multiple tools, or making reasoned inferences to solve problems online.

The percentage of U.S. adults at the lowest proficiency level was about equal the international average in digital problem-solving, less than the global average in literacy, and more than the global average in math.

The PIAAC was developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which also runs the Program for International Student Assessment, a periodic test of 15-year-olds whose most recent results are expected early next month. 

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