2013 international survey of adult competencies

U.S. still lags in adult literacy

PIAAC first results cover 13/5/12
Cover of the first OECD report on the PIAAC international survey of adult competencies.

ON 8 October 2013, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the initial findings of its international adult survey, called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

The program 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 Washinton Post reported:

"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.

"When it comes to literacy, adults in the U.S. trailed those in 12 countries and only outperformed adults in five others. The top five countries in literacy were Japan, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia and Sweden."

The following chart shows the comparative literacy rates among the countries participating in the OECD survey:

Chart comparing adult competencies in the OECD survey Chart showing the weak position of the U.S. in adult competencies. The "Missing" column shows the percentages of those unable to take the test because of language or reading difficulties.

A continuing problem for the U.S.

The report points out that while several advanced countries have made notable strides in closing the literacy gap, the U.S. figures show little improvement since previous surveys. If we look at the results of the 1993 NALS and the NAAL and the IALS of 2003, we see a persistent large percentage in the lowest reading groups, which has remained stable for many years.

Looking at the economic status of the respondents, the OECD notes an unusual connection between poverty and illiteracy in the U.S.:

The poverty—illiteracy connection

PIAAC first results cover 13/5/12
Hispanic children are now the largest group in the U.S. living in poverty.
Photo: Justin Kernes, The Pioneer.

Education historian Diane Ravitch has pointed out the high correlation between poverty and low academic achievement.

She writes in her recent book, The Reign of Error, that poor children suffer more from lack of pre-natal care, premature births, and insufficient nutrition and health care. If you abuse children, they will not develop normally.

Reading and writing are social activities that require the support of family and neighbors, the availability and use of books, and a priority placed on reading.

Ravitch writes:

"Poverty matters. Poverty affects children's health and well-being. It affects their emotional lives and their attention spans, their attendance and their academic performance. Poverty affects their motivation and their ability to concentrate on anything other than day-to-day survival. In a society of abundance, poverty is degrading and humiliating....

"The rate of childhood poverty in the United States is higher than any other advanced nation. Nearly a quarter of American children live in poverty. The latest report from UNICEF says that it is 23 perecent. No other advanced nation tolerates this level of poverty... It is clear that the United States has the dubious distinction of having the highest level of child poverty of any of the economically advanced nations in the Western Hemisphere."

In october 2013, the Southern Education Foundation reported that now over half of the students in U.S. schools in the South and West are from low-income families. The study is based on the number of students from preschool through 12th grade who were eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program in the 2010-11 school year.

Other studies have shown that even a small increase in the income of poor families will improve a child's readiness for school and success in it.

Mark R. Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washinton University recently wrote:

"Poverty is ultimately a result of failings at economic and political levels rather than individual shortcomings.

"The solutions to poverty are to be found in what is important for the health of any family having a job that pays a decent wage, having the support of good health and child care and having access to a first-rate education. Yet these policies will become a reality only when we begin to truly understand that poverty is an issue of us, rather than an issue of them."

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