Equity & Diversity Opinion

International Test Results for Young Adults Suggest Opportunity Gaps

By Robert Rothman — March 24, 2016 4 min read
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For years, business leaders have said that young people need the ability to think critically, solve problems, and communicate effectively in order to succeed in the workplace. That’s one major reason for the growing interest in deeper learning in schools. But data on how well young people can demonstrate those competencies has been sparse and mostly anecdotal.

Now a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics puts some data on the table. The report presents findings from a new analysis of the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a test of skills of adults aged 16-74, first administered in 2011-12 in the U.S. and 23 other countries. The test was developed and administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The results were originally released in October 2013, and showed the U.S performance far below international averages. The new report is based on the earlier results plus a new sample of younger adults, aged 16-34; older adults, aged 66-74; and unemployed adults, aged 16-65, who were tested between August 2013 and April 2014. The new sample of 3,660 adults permits more in-depth analyses of the skills of those three populations, the report states.

PIAAC is not precisely a measure of deeper learning competencies, but it does assess whether adults can use what they know to solve real-world problems. For example, the literacy tasks measure everyday literacy, which the OECD defines as “understanding, evaluating, using, and engaging with written text to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” A sample literacy task provides results from a bibliographic search from a library website, and asks the test-taker to identify the name of the author of a particular book and access the page where the book is located.

Numeracy tasks measure “the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas, to engage in and manage mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.” A sample problem provides test-takers with an illustration of a box constructed from folded cardboard, along with the dimensions of the base. Test-takers are asked to identify which plan best represents the assembled box out of four plans presented.

Digital problem solving, or problem solving in technology-rich environments, measures the ability, “using digital technology, communication tools, and networks, to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.” A sample task asks students to respond to a request for information by locating information in a spreadsheet and e-mailing the requested information to the person who asked for it.

The new NCES report provides some information on how young adults can demonstrate those abilities, and the results suggest that the business leaders may have been right all this time.

Consider the results for young adults, aged 16-34, with a high school credential--that’s half the young adult sample. Ten percent of that group performed at the top levels in literacy, compared with the international average of 12 percent. And 14 percent performed at the lowest levels, compared with 9 percent internationally.

In numeracy and digital problem solving, the results are worse for U.S. adults. More than a fourth of U.S. young adults with a high school credential performed at the lowest levels in numeracy; two times the rate of those in other countries. And two thirds of the U.S. young adults with a high school credential performed at the lowest levels in digital problem solving, compared with the international average of 46 percent. Only 5 percent of U.S. high school graduates reached the top levels, compared with 10 percent of the international sample.

Not surprisingly, those with higher levels of educational attainment performed better: Just 6 percent of the U.S. young adults with a bachelor’s degree performed at the lowest levels in literacy, and 24 percent performed at the top levels.

And the gaps between racial and ethnic groups are particularly stark. Just 1 percent of black young adults, and 3 percent of Hispanic young adults, reached the highest levels in numeracy, compared with 15 percent of whites.

These findings suggest strongly that there are gaps in opportunities to learn these skills. Young people don’t just happen to know how to do a bibliographic search; they must have had some exposure to these practices and developed those abilities. And clearly, some students--white students and college-bound students--have developed them, while others have not. And the ones who cannot do so will have a hard time in the job market, if business leaders are correct.

The challenge is clear. What will the next round of PIAAC results show?

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