The scores for what's billed as the world's most comprehensive adult skills exam are out -- and it's bad news for Americans.
Americans performed below the international average on math, reading and problem-solving on the exam, known as the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. U.S. math skills lagged far behind top performers, including Japan and Finland. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, based in Paris, released the results early Tuesday.
"These findings should concern us all. They show our education system hasn't done enough to help Americans compete -- or position our country to lead -- in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. "While the PIAAC study places our highest-skilled adults on par with those in other leading nations, the findings shine a spotlight on a segment of our population that has been overlooked and underserved: the large number of adults with very low basic skills, most of whom are working."
The test is designed to gauge literacy and other skills necessary in the global economy. Statisticians have called it the richest international comparison in cognitive skills and human capital. PIAAC comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Andreas Schleicher. Schleichler created the Program for International Student Assessment, one of the most influential tests of 15-year-old students across the globe.
The new test gauges people ages 16 to 65 on how practical skills are used at home and at work. The test surveyed 157,000 adults in 24 countries and regions. Most participants took the test at home, and could use computers to help with answers.
The median hourly wage of those who scored in the top two tiers in literacy was found to be 60 percent higher than those who scored at the lowest rung. Low scorers had a higher rate of unemployment and were more likely to report poor health and civic disengagement.
Americans scored 270 in literacy on average, compared with 296 in Japan. In numeracy, or math, the U.S. scored 253, below the international average, and far behind Japan's 288.
The oldest U.S. adults were close to the international average, but American adults in every other age group performed far worse than the world average. In a technology-based problem-solving skills, Poland performed the worst, with an average score of 274, compared with the U.S. average of 277 and Japan's 294.
Poland, which received attention for rapidly rising scores on the Program for International Student Assessment, and Korea, also a high performer, had lower literacy skills than the U.S. on the new test. Poland and Korea had numeracy scores similar to the U.S.
Younger U.S. students were found to have far fewer skills than adults ages 50 to 65 -- a group whose high skills are aging out of the workforce. In Korea and Poland, the gap went the other way -- older students had fewer skills than younger students, a sign that those countries' economies stand to be invigorated by workers who are savvier than their predecessors.
"Younger people in Poland, age 16 to 24, have significantly higher basic skills than their older peers," said Amanada Ripley, a journalist whose book, "The Smartest Kids In The World," investigates educational differences between the U.S., Finland, Poland and Korea. "That perfectly encapsulates how the U.S. hasn't gotten much worse or much better, but that's not what's happened around the world. "Other countries have changed a lot while we have stood still. That's the effect of more of these kids going to stronger education."
That may foreshadow a weakening economy, some said. "The implication for these countries is that the stock of skills available to them is bound to decline over the next decades unless action is taken both to improve skills proficiency among young people," the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development wrote, referring to the U.S. and England.
Paul Peterson, a Harvard University professor, took a similar view. "Our younger population should be doing better than our older population," he said. "The older population is better educated. And the younger population is entering the workforce."
The U.S. Education Department released a report that analyzed the information. A third report on the policy implications of the results was held up by the federal government shutdown.
Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes of Research who formerly oversaw statistics at the U.S. Education Department, said he was skeptical of the results. "Japan is the leader, but the fact is its economy has been in the toilet for 40 years," he said. "What are the lessons here?"