Humanities Indicators
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Adult Literacy
(Updated June 2015)

Although basic literacy rates have traditionally been an essential part of any statistical description of a country, such figures have lost their utility for wealthy nations because the rudimentary skills they measure are so widespread. The high basic literacy rate for the United States, for example, sheds little light on the extent to which American adults are able to integrate information from multiple sources or make inferences from written materials, skills they need to fully participate in an increasingly complex society. More revealing measures gauge degrees of literacy instead of just classifying people as either literate or illiterate.

Findings and Trends

  • With 46% of its adult population able to make meaning from complex and dense texts, the United States was in the bottom third of the 25 jurisdictions that participated in the 2011–2012 Survey of Adult Skills, administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as part of its Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC; Indicator V-1a). [1] The average for all participating countries was 50%, while in Finland and Japan more than 60% performed at this level. (For a description of the literacy proficiency levels employed as part of PIACC, as well as examples of the questions used to gauge proficiency, see the "Description of proficiency levels in literacy".)
  • The PIAAC assessment highlights variation in literacy proficiency across age cohorts. Once differences among age groups in education level, gender ratio, socioeconomic composition, and other key characteristics are taken into account, the youngest American adults (ages 16–44) scored, on average, 17 points higher than the oldest adults participating in the assessment (ages 55–65; Indicator V-1b). The average difference between the extreme age cohorts across all of the assessed countries was 24 points.
  • The PIAAC found that literacy and occupational skill level are highly correlated. Even when demographic and socioeconomic differences between age groups are taken into account, skilled U.S. workers scored substantially higher on the literacy assessment than their counterparts in “elementary” occupations, on average (Indicator V-1c).
  • The average score for U.S. workers in skilled occupations was nearly identical to the average for the 24 countries for which occupational data were collected [2], but the gap in test scores between skilled and unskilled workers was somewhat wider in the United States. The difference between skilled workers and workers in elementary occupations was 25 points in the United States, while the international average was 20 points.
V-1a: Percentage of Adult Population Scoring at Each Level of the PIAAC Literacy Proficiency Assessment, by Country, 2011/12†

† "PIAAC" stands for the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Countries are ranked in descending order of the combined percentage of adults scoring at Level 3 and Level 4/5. Values for each country do not add up to 100%, because some adults were not able to provide enough background information to impute proficiency scores because of language difficulties, or learning or mental disabilities. Information regarding the statistical significance of the observed differences between countries with respect to the percentage of their populations scoring at particular levels was not available from data collector when this indicator was prepared. The difference between the mean U.S. literary proficiency score and that of every other participating country, with the exception of France, is statistically significant at the .05 level. The difference between the U.S. average and the combined average for all participating countries is also statistically significant.

* The sample for the Russian Federation does not include the population of the Moscow municipal area.

** Area under the effective control of the government of the Republic of Cyprus.

Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2013), Table A2.1.

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V-1b: Average Score on PIAAC Literacy Proficiency Assessment, by Age, United States Compared to International Average, 2011/2012*

* “PIAAC” stands for the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies.

** The adjusted difference is based on a regression model and takes account of differences associated with the following variables: age, gender, education, immigration, language, and socioeconomic background. The adjusted differences are statistically significant at the .05 level.

Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2013), Table A3.2.

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V-1c: Average Score on PIAAC Literacy Proficiency Assessment, by Skill Level of Occupation, United States Compared to International Average, 2011/2012*

* “PIAAC” stands for the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Skilled occupations include legislators, senior officials and managers, professionals, technicians, and associate professionals. Semiskilled white-collar occupations include clerks, service workers, and shop and market sales workers. Semiskilled blue-collar occupations include skilled agricultural and fishery workers, craft and related trades workers, plant and machine operators, and assemblers. Elementary occupations include, but are not limited to, laborers.

** The adjusted difference is based on a regression model and takes account of differences associated with the following variables: age, gender, education, immigration, language, and socioeconomic background. The adjusted differences are statistically significant at the .05 level.

Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2013), Table A3.19.

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