Have you heard of PIAAC? (And why I think you should!)

by Federico Salas-Isnardi

(This article is excerpted from a longer article I published in the Texas Adult Education and Literacy Quarterly, 18, 2, pp. 1-3, Spring 2014.)

How many of you can raise your hand if I ask you about the 2012 PIAAC report?  How many of you understand its implications? Interestingly, as I talk to adult educators around the nation, many, if not most, tell me they have never heard of PIAAC.  Even many who say they heard of the report are uncomfortable articulating reasons why this study has serious implications for the practice of adult education.  So, what is PIAAC?

Released in October 2013 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for its member nations, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is a cyclical study of the literacy, numeracy, reading, and problem-solving competencies of adults 16 to 65 in the USA and 22 other countries. Many of the comparison countries are among the twenty largest economies in the world.

Adults in the United States underperformed most of their counterparts in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. The USA ranked 13 out of 24 countries in English language skills, 19 out of 24 in numeracy, and 15 in problem solving skills.  Over 36 million adults in the US have low literacy skills and fully one out every three adults have weak numeracy compared with the average across countries of one out of every five adults surveyed. Low level skills are distributed throughout different demographics in the USA, so that not only we have a larger percentage of adults with low skills but also a smaller proportion of the adult population has skills at the higher levels.  When racial and ethnic variables are considered, minorities are over-represented among those with low competencies; 43 percent of Hispanics and over 30 percent of Blacks score at the lowest levels of literacy used in the PIAAC study. When confronted with the dismal findings, many critics will counter that it is unfair to compare adults in the United States with counterparts in smaller nations or in countries with different or more homogeneous demographics.  However, one reason to be concerned is that the study compares our performance with that of adults in the other developed countries of the OECD, that is, the countries with which we compete for a slice of the global jobs pie.

Other findings

According to the PIAAC study, while adults in the USA have a higher rate of participation in adult education and training than adults in other countries, those who need the training the most are the least likely to get it.  Those of us working as administrators in adult education and literacy need to evaluate our programs; those of us who teach need to take a careful look at the teaching learning interaction in our classrooms, and those of us who focus on professional development must assess our training programs in order to determine why, in spite of the higher participation rate in education programs, our adults not only perform below average internationally but also show that we are getting worse instead of better over the last two decades.

It is also worth considering that the United States is not doing as well as other countries educating our youth; a separate OECD report on the skills of in-school 15 year olds (PISA, 2012) shows our young students scoring below their international counterparts in literacy and numeracy. The challenge is that while other countries have been able to address the skills gap of previous generations, youth in the United States don’t perform better, and often underperform their parents and grandparents.

The challenge to adult educators

It should be apparent now why I find it perplexing that so few in our field have taken the time to learn about this study.  I think that understanding the implications of the PIAAC study is a must for to educators and policymakers alike.  We know of the challenges our students with low literacy levels face obtain employment and to succeed in other personal or training endeavors.  It is noteworthy that according to the report, the United States has one of the highest percentages of available jobs requiring skills at a high school level or above. In other words, while most jobs in demand in this country require higher literacy skills, our adult population has lower skills than the countries we compete with.

So, what are we to do with this knowledge?  It seems to me that our first gut-reaction should be to acknowledge loudly that what we have been doing in adult education is not working.  We need to rethink literacy education and very purposefully integrate numeracy and technology-enabled problem solving in all our adult education programs.  And beyond that, we need to see the PIAAC report as a call to action and we should respond each within our purview because only collective action will address the massive challenges. Adult educators must be proactive and sit at the table as solutions for the problem in K-12 are considered because the literacy crisis affecting our adults is made worse by an ongoing flow of under-skilled youth.

 

For information on PIAAC and the study, visit the OECD

To access the study for the United States click here.

Link to: PISA 2012


Federico Salas-Isnardi has 30 years of experience in Adult Education and second language acquisition.  He has conducted hundreds of workshops on many aspects of adult education, literacy, and ESL and has focused on intercultural and diversity training as well as social justice issues affecting students and teachers for over 25 years.

Federico served on the team that developed the US Naturalization test and is one of the authors of Future US Citizens and a consultant to the Future English for Results series.

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