A new survey shows that American adults are worldwide underperformers who lag most countries in literacy, math and computer skills, raising concerns about the long-term effects of the U.S. education system.
The Survey of Adult Skills is an international survey conducted in 33 countries as part of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The information can be used by educators, policy makers and labor economists to develop economic, education and social policies that will continue to enhance the skills of adults, according to Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) website.
The survey measured the literacy, math and computer skills of about 5,000 U.S. adults between ages 16 and 65, and compared them with similar samples of adults from 21 countries in the OECD. The comparison of U.S. adults to those in other democracies found that Americans were below average when it comes to skills needed to compete in the global economy, according to Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post.
The Americans are "decidedly weaker in numeracy and problem-solving skills than in literacy, and average U.S. scores for all three are below the international average and far behind the scores of top performers like Japan or Finland," said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the data collection arm of the U.S. Department of Education.
The top five countries in literacy were Japan, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia and Sweden. Adults in the U.S. trailed 12 countries and only outperformed adults in five others.
In mathematics, U.S. adults did even worse, trailing 18 countries and beating only Italy and Spain. In the category of problem-solving in technology-rich environments or digital skills, U.S. adults lagged behind their counterparts in 14 countries.
U.S. citizens scored higher than average in literacy among the most educated test-takers — those with graduate or professional degrees. But they scored lower than average in math and digital skills.
The adult survey also showed the achievement gap between white test takers and black and Hispanic test takers, a stubborn problem in U.S. K-12 public education. There were significant differences in test scores between whites and minorities.
"These findings should concern us all," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a written statement. "They show our education system hasn't done enough to help Americans compete — or position our country to lead — in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills."
According to Duncan, the study highlights a large group of adults with very low basic skills that have been overlooked and underserved.
"Adults who have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems and using technology will find the doors of the 21st century workforce closed to them," Duncan said. "We need to find ways to challenge and reach more adults to upgrade their skills."