The OECD, much loved by education-data wonks for its yearly Education at a Glance report, has launched its latest international-data nerd-bible: the Survey of Adult Skills, run by the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (or PIACC), which measures proficiency in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving among adults aged sixteen through sixty-five. In this debut edition, researchers surveyed roughly 166,000 adults in twenty-four countries, almost all of which are OECD members, meaning they have “advanced” economies. The bottom line: The U.S. performed below the international average on most measures. The researchers also found that proficiency worldwide is closely associated with age, reaching a peak around age 30 and declining steadily, with the oldest age groups displaying lower levels of proficiency than the youngest. (This decline is likely related both to differences in the amount and quality of education and training opportunities and to the effects of getting older.) Older Americans fared better than younger in literacy: 12 percent of Americans aged 55–65 scored at the highest proficiency level versus just 5 percent of the full international sample of that age cohort. In every other age group, though, the U.S. lagged behind. Finland and Japan stood out, with roughly every fifth Finnish and Japanese adult reading at the highest levels (Australians, Belgians, and Canadians also performed above average). On the other hand, most of Europe foundered with the Americans, scoring below-average overall. Some countries also seem to have made significant progress in improving their proficiency over the generations: For instance, South Korea is among the three lowest-performing countries when examining proficiency skills for those aged 55–65—but when looking at the cohort aged 16–24, South Korea ranks second only to Japan. And speaking of Japan: The average Japanese person aged twenty-five through thirty-four who has only completed high school easily outperforms Italian and Spanish college graduates of the same age. To be sure, this study, like most such, uses cross-sectional data and does not track individual students over time, meaning that some of the differences across generations may be attributable to changes in the population. But still and all, this report—like plenty of OECD reports before it—is chockablock with fascinating data. International-education buffs: Dig in! But know before you try to download it that the main report alone is close to 500 pages.

SOURCE: OECD, OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills (OECD Publishing, 2013).

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