US millennials lag behind international peers in problem solving, numeracy, literacy

New study suggests Americans graduate high school, college 'without receiving adequate skills'

Despite being the most highly educated generation, American millennials on average show weaker numeracy, literacy, and problem solving skills than their peers from other countries, according to a new study by the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

For the report, "America's Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future," researchers examined data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and compared U.S. students, ages 16 to 34 years at the time of the test, to the same cohort in the other 21 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED).

The assessment measures problem solving in a technology-rich environment (PS-TRE), numeracy, and literacy. It found that the highest ranking countries across all levels were:

1. Finland
2. Japan
3. Sweden
4. Netherlands
5. Norway

Americans ranked third to last in literacy, tied for last with Italy and Spain in numeracy, and tied for last with Ireland, Poland, and the Slovak Republic for PS-TRE.

Pursuing higher education did not improve Americans' standings. Those who earned a bachelor's degree still only bested their Polish and Spanish peers in numeracy, while those with master's and research-oriented degrees only scored better across all three categories than students from Ireland, Poland, and Spain. 

"This report suggests that far too many are graduating high school and completing postsecondary educational programs without receiving adequate skills," writes Irwin Kirsch, ETS's Center for Global Assessment director, in the study's preface, emphasizing the "need to shift the conversation from one of educational attainment to one that acknowledges the growing importance of skills."

The report also highlights social inequality—the educational achievement gap between the highest and lowest American scorers was greater than in 14 other countries. There was also a strong correlation between parents' education levels and their millennial children's, but the U.S. had the lowest levels of parental education.

"Skills or knowledge can either feed inequality or be an equalizing force. We must decide," write the study authors (Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 2/17; ETS release, 2/17; Goodman et. al, ETS report, 2/17).

The takeaway: A new report finds that American millennials significantly lag behind their international peers in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving across all levels of academic achievement, pointing to systemic issues within the U.S. education system.


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