U. S. Adults Perform Below International Average in Numeracy, Literacy and Problem Solving

“And, besides, we walked 6 miles to school every day, snowstorm or not.”  As it turns out the old codger may have been right.  According to the first-ever international survey of the skills of the adult population in 23 nations, the United States is performing below average.  The crusty old codgers—those 55-64–turn out to be the only U. S. age cohort that stands up to the international competition on the numeracy (math) test administered by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

Overall, the United States ranks 19 out of 23 in the math test that PIAAC administered.  Those findings for U. S. adults are consistent with the results for 15-year old students in the United States—they rank 32nd out of 65—reported by my colleagues and me in our recent book, Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School. The adult rankings differ only because PIAAC was administered to just 23 industrialized nations, while our report is based upon tests given to a broader list of nations that included many developing countries.

When our book appeared a couple of months ago, critics complained that our survey of high school student performance was misleading, as math skills could be acquired later on in college or on the job.  Now PIAAC has demonstrated that a country with less effective schools is a country with a less skilled work force.

On the literacy test and on the test that measured the ability to problem-solve in technology rich environments, the United States also scored below the international average.  So much for the claim that the United States teaches people to be creative and solve problems.

Gaps in numeracy between those with a college degree and those who did not complete high school were larger in the United States than elsewhere (on average), implying that part of the problem is the inadequate schooling provided for the least advantaged in our society.

But the challenges go well beyond the disadvantaged.   Only 9 percent of U. S. adults performed at the highest proficiency levels in math, a percentage that was lower than levels attained in 15 countries, including Japan, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Australia, Austria, Germany, Canada, The Slovak Republic and others beside.

Only the old codgers did as well on the math (numeracy) test as their peers across the world.  This is not surprising.  The United States once had the best educational system in the world.  Kids not only walked to school; they learned something when they got there.  But that day seems to have faded away.  Unfortunately, the United States can no longer live on the great educational system it once enjoyed.

Admittedly, a higher percentage of U. S. students performed very well on the literacy test.  Twelve percent of U. S. adults had high-end literacy skills, but that record falls short of the skills demonstrated by adults in Japan, Finland, Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, Norway and Canada.

Why can’t the United States perform at the same level as the Canadians?  If they could, our study shows, the economic returns to the nation would be enormous over the course of the 21st Century.   The economic returns would be so great workers could find their wages shifted upward by as much as 20 percent.  Even if a portion of that were used to pay off the national debt, that would still be a nice piece of change.

-Paul E. Peterson

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College