Accountability Opinion

The American Workforce: Survey Delivers Bad News

By Marc Tucker — February 19, 2015 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Forty years ago, the United States had the best-educated workforce in the world. Not any more. Not even close, says the Educational Testing Service in a new report: America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future. The report is based on ETS’s analysis of data from the OECD Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey.

The survey compares the literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills of millennials in 22 countries, workers who were 16-to 34-year-olds when the survey was taken. This is what it found:

In literacy, U.S. millennials scored lower than 15 of the participating countries. Only millennials in Spain and Italy had lower scores.

In numeracy, U.S. millenials ranked last, along with Italy and Spain.

In problem solving U.S. millennials also ranked last, among with the Slovak Republic, Ireland and Poland.

The youngest segment of the U.S. millennial cohort (16-to 24-year-olds), who could be in the labor force for the next 50 years, ranked last in numeracy along with Italy and among the bottom countries in problem solving. In literacy, they scored higher than their peers in Italy and Spain.

This is depressing enough, but the ETS analysis had more to say, this time not about our average scorers, but about our top and low scorers:

Top-scoring U.S. millennials (those at the 90th percentile) scored lower than the top-scoring millennials in 15 of the 22 participating countries, and only scored higher than their peers in Spain.

Low-scoring U.S. millennials (those at the 10th percentile) ranked last along with Italy and England/Northern Ireland and scored lower than the millennials in 19 participating countries.

The gap in scores (139 points) between U.S. millennials at the 90th and 10th percentiles was higher than the gap in 14 of the participating countries and was not significantly different than the gap in the remaining countries, signaling a high degree of inequity in the distribution of scores.

In his preface to the report, ETS’s Irwin Kirsch says:

”...despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous American generation, these young adults on average demonstrate relatively weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to their international peers. These findings hold true when looking at millennials overall, our best performing and most educated, those who are native born, and those from the highest socioeconomic background. Equally troubling is that these findings represent a decrease in literacy and numeracy skills for U.S . adults when compared with results from previous adult surveys.... Since around 1975, those who have acquired the highest levels of education and skills have become the big winners, while those with the lowest levels of education and skills have fared the worst. Millions of hard-working Americans who believed they were strongly anchored in the middle class have fallen into joblessness and economic insecurity.... The findings also offer a clear caution to anyone who believes that our policies around education should focus primarily on years of schooling or trusts that the conferring of credentials and certificates alone is enough. While it is true that, on average, the more years of schooling one completes, the more skills one acquires, this report suggests that far too many are graduating high school and completing postsecondary educational programs without receiving adequate skills. If we expect to have a better educated population and a more competitive workforce, policy makers and other stakeholders will need to shift the conversation from one of educational attainment to one that acknowledges the growing importance of skills and examines these more critically.”

There has been much celebration recently of higher graduation rates and much less attention to the fact that NAEP scores for high schools students have barely budged at all in years. Nor have the PISA scores of our 15-year-olds. The high school diploma tells you little or nothing about what the people who hold it know or can do. The NAEP high school scores, the PISA scores and the PIAAC scores do tell you what students know and can do. There is a world of difference. That is what Kirsch is talking about. This data from the OECD makes it clear that the skills of our workforce are not only very low compared to those of our competitors, but they are actually declining, which is truly devastating.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.