U.S. adults lag most countries in literacy, math and computer skills

Policymakers and politicians who wring their hands about the mediocre performance of U.S. students on international math and reading tests have another worry: The nation’s grown-ups aren’t doing much better.

A first-ever comparison of adults in the United States and those in other democracies found that Americans were below average when it comes to skills needed to compete in the global economy.

The survey, released Tuesday, 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 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

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.

U.S. adults did worse in mathematics, where they trailed 18 countries and beat just two — Italy and Spain.

And in the category of “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” or digital skills, U.S. adults lagged behind their counterparts in 14 countries.

Among the most educated test-takers — those with graduate or professional degrees — U.S. citizens scored higher than average in literacy, but lower than average in math and digital skills.

The achievement gap between white test takers and black and Hispanic test takers, a stubborn problem in U.S. K-12 public education, showed up in the adult survey. There were significant differences in test scores between whites and minorities.

“These findings should concern us all,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a written statement. “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.”

Duncan said the study highlights a group that has been “overlooked and underserved: the large number of adults with very low basic skills, most of whom are working.”

“Adults who have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems and using technology will find the doors of the 21st century workforce closed to them,” Duncan said. “We need to find ways to challenge and reach more adults to upgrade their skills.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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