Blog: The Educated Reporter

Europe, Asia Clobber the U.S. on Test of How Much Young Workers Know

By Westminster College Fulton MO (The Photo Database) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Younger American workers are more educated than ever before, but the nation’s largest generation is losing its edge against the least and most educated of other countries, according to a provocative new report.

The report’s authors warn these PIAAC findings portend a growing gap between rich and poor U.S. workers and that the lackluster results threaten U.S. competitiveness in an increasingly globalized market.

The report, produced by testing giant ETS, analyzes data collected by an international assessment known as Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) that measures the literacy and numeracy skills of workers ages 16-65 in the U.S. and in other wealthy countries. While those results were published before, the new ETS study compared U.S. millennials – those between the ages of 16 and 34 – to their international colleagues roughly two dozen countries. 

The analysis found that more than half of U.S. millennials lack proficiency in applying reading and math skills to the workplace.

“You’ve seen tons of school reform efforts in the last 20 years that don’t seem to be able to make a dent. Well, maybe we need to reframe the problem in a larger way,” Madeline Goodman, a co-author of the ETS report, said in a phone interview. “It’s a question of putting the problem of skills in a larger context of inequality and opportunity in America today.”

Tom Loveless, an education scholar with The Brookings Institution, told EWA in a phone interview that while the PIAAC results aren’t surprising, the maker of the assessment “is unabashed about its ambitions in this regard — the OECD believes it’s measuring skills that matter in the 21st century. Put me in the ‘I’m skeptical of that claim’ group.” While keeping those caveats in mind, the ETS report bears consideration, and paints a dispiriting picture of U.S. competitiveness:

  • Even though U.S. workers complete high school and college at rates similar to those in high-performing countries, U.S. PIACC scores for workers ages 25-34 are on par with those in the least educated of PIACC-participating countries and territories.
  • On literacy, U.S. millennials posted an average score of 274 on a 500-point scale while the average among participating countries is 282.
  • On numeracy, U.S. millennials are in a statistical dead heat with Spain and Italy for last place, showing an average score of 255 while the average for participating countries is 275 on a 500-point scale.
  • One half of U.S. millennials scored below the threshold that indicates proficiency in literacy. By comparison, high-flying nations like Finland and Japan had between 19 percent and 23 percent of their millennials miss the threshold for proficiency in literacy.
  • Those same countries had roughly a third of millennials miss the proficiency cut-off score in numeracy, while roughly four-in-ten millennials in countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Estonia performed below proficient. Two-thirds of U.S. millennials missed the cut-off mark in numeracy.
  • The U.S. had the largest gap in numeracy scores between its millennials in the bottom- and top-10 percent of all performers, and both U.S. groups posted some of the lowest scores compared to PIAAC-participating countries.
  • Perhaps more unsettling, the report indicates that the literacy and numeracy skills of U.S. workers have largely declined compared to U.S. workers in the labor force two decades ago.

“As a country, we need to address the question of whether we can afford … to write off nearly half of our younger-adult population as not having the skills needed to effectively engage as full and active participants in their own future and that of our nation,” write the authors of the ETS report.

The ETS report also indicates that parental education levels correlate more strongly with U.S. millennial numeracy scores than in other countries, suggesting America’s middling PIAAC scores would be much lower without the high college completion rates of the previous generation.

Source: ETS

Goodman and her co-author Anita Sands also ruled out the effect non-native workers had on U.S. PIAAC scores among millennials, pointing to data that showed U.S. workers born here and abroad performed near the bottom compared to young workers with similar biographies in other PIAAC-tested countries.

PIAAC is produced by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the same organization behind Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which since 2000 has found U.S. 15 year-olds to be below average in math and science compared to their international peers. PISA is one of several international assessments that has found U.S. students trailing their international peers. In 1964, the U.S. ranked 11 out of 12 on the first international math assessment, in the middle of a multi-decade period of prodigious economic growth.

A January report by the liberal advocacy group Washington Center for Equitable Growth calculated that if the U.S. were to invest in the resources to raise the PISA results of its 15-year-olds to the average score of all PISA participants, the result would jumpstart the economy and yield an increase of $900 billion in the country’s local, state and federal tax revenues in the next 35 years. Those gains far outweigh the resources necessary to improve U.S. student scores, the report’s authors wrote.

“When you talk about … the globalizing changes in the economy and technology, you can’t discount that there have been particular policy decisions that have been made in this country in the last 40 years,” Goodman said. “But all of those global forces have affected European countries, as well, and yet they made different kinds of policy choices and have different results as well.”

Loveless of The Brookings Institution says empirically the PIAAC results don’t match up with current data we have about the U.S. economy’s performance. But a bigger qualm Loveless has is the assumption PIAAC makes about the skills workers will need going forward. “Let’s say I was alive in 1915 and I gave a test that predicted the job skills and future economic productivity of nations,” he said. “I just don’t see how anyone in 1915 could have foreseen the skills that would have been important for the rest of the 20th century, and I doubt that anyone’s doing that now for the 21st century.”

No test-maker, said Loveless “has come up with an assessment that’s a crystal ball like that.”   

But the report’s authors said their findings are consistent with other data sets that capture where the U.S. stands academically, particularly PISA and the federal assessment known as The Nation’s Report Card that measures how much students in certain grades know in key academic subjects. “If our data were showing something that’s not in line with other kinds of large-scale assessments, it might raise questions … but that’s not the case,” Goodman said.