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CTE Research Review: International Comparisons Show U.S. Adults Behind in Literacy and Basic Math Skills

Research Image_6.2013Adults in the U.S. are lagging behind in literacy and math skills compared to their international counterparts, according to a new study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The OECD released findings from its Survey of Adults Skills, which measured the literacy, basic math, and technology skills of 16- to 65-year olds in 24 OECD countries, and found that American adults performed worse in these areas than almost every other country surveyed.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated that, “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.” The report highlighted findings in the following areas:

Literacy: The report defines literacy as the “ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

  • Fewer than 8 out of 10 American adults performed at a level 2 out of 5 in literacy, ranking the U.S. 16th out of 24 countries in this area.

Numerical Proficiency: The report defines numerical proficiency as the “ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.”

  • Fewer than 4 in 10 American adults scored at a level 3 out of 5 or higher, ranking the U.S. 21st out of 24 countries in this area.

Technology: The report assessed adults’ abilities to problem solve in technology-rich environments.

  • In the U.S., nearly 16% of adults had proficiencies below level 1. The ranking in this area for the U.S. was 14th out of 24 countries.

According to OECD, the report “provides clear evidence of how developing and using skills improves employment prospects and quality of life as well as boosting economic growth. It helps countries set meaningful targets benchmarked against the achievements of the world’s leading skills systems and to develop relevant policy responses.”

Read the full report here.

In order to increase global competitiveness and catch up with the countries that are outpacing the U.S., more opportunities to develop and use in-demand skills are a must. High-quality Career Technical Education (CTE) programs – which blend academic and technical learning and results in an industry-recognized credential or degree – provide one potential solution for improving adult learner skill acquisition in the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Education planned to release a report on the policy implications of the study; however, the federal government shutdown has delayed that release.

Kara Herbertson, Research and Policy Manager

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