Global Survey Shows U.S. Millennials Lagging Behind

While methodologies vary, the goal of current U.S. education reform efforts is to make sure students are college- and career-ready. According to a new report from ETS, though, U.S adults are already lagging behind their international counterparts. America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future examines data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which was administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The survey looked at the skills of adults 16-65 around the world. Focusing on participants born after 1980, the ETS report found that U.S. millennials rank lower than other countries in key areas like literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments.

“Although evident in the 1990s, shifts in the nature of work and demands for skilled vs. unskilled labor have made it even more apparent today that individuals’ economic security and prosperity rest in large measure on the acquisition of specific skills as well as the ability to augment skill proficiency throughout one’s lifetime,” says the report. “Competency in domains such as reading literacy, numeracy, and problem solving are critical for success in the increasingly complex economies and societies of the 21st century.”

Key Data Points

  • 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.
  • 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.

The report’s authors acknowledge, though, that the data does not take into account other factors, such as economics and local politics, and that more education is not the only solution. “If, despite investments and reforms in K-12 education over the past decades America continues to lose ground in terms of the developed skills of its adult population and workforce, then we need to better appreciate the ways in which education can perpetuate inequalities of opportunity at all educational levels, as well as help redress this problem,” reads the ETS statement on the report.

Read the executive summary and report from ETS.

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