[Editor’s note: This story, originally published on March 18th of this year, was our #5 most popular story of the year. The countdown continues tomorrow with #4, so be sure to check back!]
It’s a conversation a decade ago that was so widely circulated and discussed that even dedicated education stakeholders grew weary of it: U.S. students are performing below average in math and reading compared to their international peers—what do we do? 10 years of jumbled reform initiatives and touting Millennials as the most educated demographic in recent history later, national and international research groups say nothing has changed; and, in fact, it may be getting worse.
In 2013, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) released the first-ever global data on how the U.S. population aged 16 to 65 compared to other countries in terms of skills in literacy and reading, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE). The PIAAC then broke down the data by specific age group, including Millennials, or those born after 1980 that were between the ages of 16-34 at the time of the assessment (2012).
Overall, revealed the data, despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous American generation, Millennials, on average, demonstrate relatively weak skills in all skill sets researched compared to their international peers.
Also, the data revealed that while it is true, on average, that the more years of education one completes the more skills one acquires, far too many are graduating high school and completing postsecondary education without receiving the right skills needed to enter a competitive, global workforce that is becoming more and more technology-based.
“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,” writes Irwin Kirsch, Ralph Tyler Chair in Large-Scale Assessment and Director of the Center for Global Assessments at Educational Testing Service (ETS). “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.”
But what are the hard numbers to support these claims; and is it just a matter of more education?
(Next page: Hard data on Millennials’ skills; implications for skills-based education)
According to the PIAAC’s 2013 report, which included 5,000 people in each country surveyed (more on the methodology here) and was designed as a household study of nationally representative samples of adults ages 16-65, data on U.S. Millennials reveals:
Comparing their average scores to other participating countries:
- In literacy, U.S. millennials scored lower than 15 of the 22 participating countries. Only millennials in Spain and Italy had lower scores.
- In numeracy, U.S. millennials ranked last, along with Italy and Spain.
- In PS-TRE, U.S. millennials also ranked last, along 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 PS-TRE. In literacy, they scored higher than their peers in Italy and Spain.
Comparing U.S. top-performing and lower-performing Millennials to their international peers:
- Top-scoring U.S. millennials (those at the 90th percentile) scored lower than 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 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 inequality in the distribution of scores.
Comparing millennials with different levels of educational attainment in their performance over time and in relation to their international peers:
- Although a greater percentage of young adults in the U.S. are attaining higher levels of education since 2003, the numeracy scores of U.S. millennials whose highest level of education is high schooland above high school have declined.
- Since 2003, the percentages of U.S. millennials scoring below level 3 in numeracy (the minimum standard) increased at all levels of educational attainment.
- S. millennials with a four-year bachelor’s degree scored higher in numeracy than their counterparts in only two countries: Poland and Spain.
- The scores of U.S. millennials whose highest level of educational attainment was either less than high schoolor high school were lower than those of their counterparts in almost every other participating country.
- Our best-educated millennials—those with a master’s or research degree—only scored higher than their peers in Ireland, Poland, and Spain.
Analyzing demographic characteristics on performance:
- Among all countries, there was a strong relationship between parental levels of educational attainment and skills; across all levels of parental educational attainment, there was no country where millennials scored lower than those in the United States.
- The gap in scores between U.S. millennials with the highest level of parental educational attainment and those with the lowest was among the largest of the participating countries.
- In most countries, native-born millennials scored higher than foreign-born millennials; however, native-born U.S. millennials did not perform higher than their peers in any other country.
The PIAAC this month, in partnership with the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), released a more nuanced look at 2012’s data, as well as included more data collected during Round 2 in 2014. According to the PIAAC, nothing much has changed, saying that “differences in international averages calculated for the 2012 PIAAC [report] and those calculated for this report are very small but, on account of them, some estimates round differently.”
(Next page: What does this mean for today’s students, for higher education, and for the economy?)
The PIAAC notes that after studying the data collected from all countries, simply providing more education may not hold the answer to skilling-up today’s students.
“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,” writes Kirsch. “How are skills distributed in the population and how do they relate to important social and economic outcomes? How can we ensure that students earning a high school diploma and a postsecondary degree acquire the necessary skills to fully participate in our society?
In the ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education’s brief, the aim of this data and call-to-action is not to “bemoan the nation’s declining status,” but instead suggest essential ways in which skills interact with broader social and economic forces.
“A nation with some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world houses a college-educated population that scores among the lowest of the participating OECD nations,” emphasizes the ETS brief. “Millennials who will form the backbone of this nation’s future are not poised to lift us out of this predicament; in fact, the lack of adequate skills in this population has become a challenge for us to confront.”
The brief concludes by explaining that the demand for more skilled workers may translate to a demand for workers with “very high levels of education” and perhaps very particular kinds of education and technical expertise. “Even those with some post-secondary education, or even many with a four-year baccalaureate degree, may face two distinct and critical challenges: One is that their skill levels, despite post-secondary education, may be inadequate, particularly in a global labor market. The PIAAC results speak directly to this. The other is that the market may be demanding ,and only highly remunerating, very particular technical skills that merely a select few can supply.”
In this scenario, concludes the brief, “advantage is concentrated among a few, while disadvantage is shared widely.”
For much more detailed information on the ETS brief, including breakdowns of data by demographics and further economic implications, read “America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future.”
For more information on PIAAC’s 2013 release of adult skills data, click here.
For more information on PIAAC and NCES’ release of more nuanced data from 2014, click here.
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