Question:
What are the literacy levels of adults, and how does the United States compare to other countries?

Response:

The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is a cyclical, large-scale study of adult cognitive skills and life experiences developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and, in the United States, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). PIAAC was designed to assess adults between the ages of 16 and 65 in different countries over a broad range of abilities, from reading simple passages to complex problem-solving skills, and to collect information on an individual’s skill use and background. The PIAAC literacy framework defines literacy as “understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written text to participate in the society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

PIAAC results are reported in two ways: as average scores on a 0500 scale and as percentages of adults reaching specific proficiency levels. There are six levels of proficiency for literacy (from below Level 1 to Level 5). More information about the PIAAC proficiency levels in literacy may be found here. In 2017, the third PIAAC data collection in the United States took place. The results of the first round of U.S. PIAAC data collection in 2012 and the second round of data collection in 2014 are combined, by design, into one data point for 2012/14.

Between 2012/14 and 2017, overall average scores for U.S. adults were not measurably different in literacy. Between 2012/14 and 2017, there were no statistically significant changes in the percentage of adults performing at each proficiency level in literacy. The percentage of U.S. adults performing at the lowest levels in literacy (i.e., Level 1 or below) in 2017 were 19 percent. The percentage performing at the highest levels in literacy (i.e., Level 3 or above) in 2017 was 48 percent.

Percentage distribution of U.S. adults age 16 to 65 at selected levels of proficiency on PIAAC literacy: 2012/14 and 2017

NOTE: Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Only statistically significant differences between years are marked with an asterisk. In literacy, higher, middle, and lower performance are denoted by Level 3 or above, Level 2, and Level 1 or below, respectively.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), U.S. PIAAC 2017, U.S. PIAAC 2012/2014.

In 201215, U.S. adults scored higher in literacy (272) than the PIAAC international average across participating countries (267). However, compared to higher-performing countries like Japan (296) and Finland (288), the United States lags behind in literacy. In literacy, 50 percent of U.S. adults performed at Level 3 or above compared to 72 percent in Japan and 63 percent in Finland. At the other end of the skill spectrum, 18 percent of U.S. adults performed at or below Level 1 in literacy, compared to 5 percent in Japan and 11 percent in Finland performing at this lowest level.

Average scores on PIAAC literacy for adults age 16 to 65 for the United States and highest-performing countries: 201215

* Significantly different (p < .05) from the United States.

NOTE: Average scores for the United States are compared to the PIAAC international average and highest-performing countries. Results for 23 of the countries were gathered in 201112, and an additional 9 participated in 201415. The two highest-performing countries are shown, in descending order from left to right. Results for the United States are shown on the far left to highlight that comparison.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), 201215.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Highlights of the 2017 U.S. PIAAC Results Web Report (NCES 2020-777) and PIAAC International Highlights Web Report (NCES 2020-127).

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