Report Sheds Light on Adults’ Use of Education in the US


The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the primary federal entity used for analyzing and reporting data having to do with education in the United States, has released the results from its Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). This program is a large-scale study of adult skills and life experiences relating to education and employment.

The PIAAC conducted surveys of 3,660 adults ranging from 16 to 74 over the course of a year, measuring these individuals' levels of literacy, problem-solving skills, and numeracy, a metric used to evaluate basic mathematical and computational skills.

In literacy, American adults perform at a rate consistent with the international norm. Additionally, the United States has a larger percentage of adults performing at the top and the bottom of literacy skills compared with other countries.

In numeracy and in problem-solving skills, the United States as a whole performed below the average. The United States features a smaller percentage of individuals at the top levels in numeracy and a larger percentage of adults at the bottom in problem-solving skills than other places evaluated by the PIAAC.

Specifically relating to the United States, American adults who perform at the top proficiency level in literacy, in numeracy, and in problem-solving skills are those aged between 25 – 34, rather than those in other age intervals.

A strong performance in literacy and numeracy is indicative of employment. In literacy, 15% of employed individuals performed at top literacy levels, while 12% of employed adults performed that well in numeracy. Adults who are unemployed or out of the labor force performed at much lower levels in literacy and numeracy.

Unsurprisingly, 75% of unemployed U.S. adults lack a high school accreditation; of these individuals, a third performed at the lowest level of literacy. Among these undereducated Americans, white Americans outperformed Hispanic and black Americans in literacy, in numeracy, and in problem-solving. Unemployed Americans performed no worse than the unemployed of other countries.

Among adults between 16 – 34, there is a strong correlation between one's education and one's performance in the workforce. Generally speaking, the higher level of education completed, the higher an adult would perform at top proficiency levels in all three of the areas. These statistics correlate with race. Much smaller percentages of black and Hispanic young adults performed in the top proficiency levels than their white peers. This disparity bespeaks an inequality of resources and opportunities available to young people in communities of color.

Interestingly, the correlation between education level and performance tapers off as age increases. For example, there were no measurable differences between adults ages between 66 – 74 and performing at the highest proficiency levels, who had a Bachelor's degree or an advanced professional or graduate degree. As mentioned, the level of degree attainment correlated with performance among young Americans. These statistics indicate the changing nature of American education and underscore the necessity of a college degree in contemporary America.

The full report of the findings can be found online, and the data is of interest to anyone who wants a better understanding of Americans' levels of basic competencies and how these relate to issues of age, education, employment, and race.

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