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Directions for the future work
Main findings
Numeracy
Problem solving
Performance across skill domains
Skill match and mismatch
From ALL to PIAAC: Developing the key themes
Foundation skills and human capital
Foundation skills for the information age
Change in literacy proficiency with time
Characteristics of adults with low skills
Skills used in the workplace
References

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Directions for the future work

The cycle of international comparative assessments of adult foundation skills, began in the early 1990s with the launch of IALS, will not end with the conclusion of the second wave of ALL. The OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is designed to continue this line of work1. In this context, this concluding chapter not only offers an overview of the main findings presented in this report but also provides a brief presentation of major themes that have emerged from the analysis of IALS and ALL data – themes that will be carried forward and deepened with PIAAC.

Main findings

This report presents comparative results of countries which participated in the second and final wave of ALL in 2007 and 2008, in particular Australia, Hungary, the Netherlands and New Zealand, together with results of countries in the first wave. It also offers a more in-depth presentation of proficiency in numeracy and problem solving than has previously been available and explores the profile and impact of proficiency across the four skill domains assessed. Moreover, it extends the understanding of the portfolio of foundation skills possessed by adults and the interactions and relationships between these skills and their antecedents and outcomes.

In many respects the findings confirm those presented previously in international reports on IALS and ALL.

  • The proficiency of the adult population in the foundation skills of literacy, numeracy and problem solving varies widely between and also within countries.
  • Much of the differences in the level and distribution of proficiency can be explained by social background, educational attainment and a range of variables relating to use of and engagement with literacy and numeracy and the ways adults lead their lives.
  • Significant proportions of the adult population display poor levels of proficiency in one or more of the skill domains assessed and many perform poorly in all domains.
  • The differences in the level and distribution of literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills are associated with large differences in economic and social outcomes.
  • With some exceptions, the population mean scores in prose and document literacy changed little over the period between the administration of IALS and ALL.
  • In several countries the extent of variation in the literacy proficiency of the adult population appears to have decreased during this period. For the most part this is due to improvements in performance among those at the lower end of the literacy skill distributions.
  • The proficiency of the adult population is not necessarily consistent across all skill domains assessed. Some countries have strong performance in most domains (the Netherlands, Norway), whereas others show consistently average results (Australia, Canada, New Zealand). The performance of Bermuda and Switzerland fluctuates between the skill domains – they perform well in some domains but below average in others. Adults in Hungary, Italy and the United States have consistently low performance in most skill domains relative to the comparison countries.
  • In most countries the mean proficiency scores in prose and document literacy are lower for older age groups than for younger ones, with the steepest decline occurring for the oldest age group. Results for New Zealand are the exception. Here, the prose and document literacy scores of the population aged 16 to 25 years are equivalent to those of the population aged 45 to 65 years.

A feature of this report is that it extends the understanding of the portfolio of foundation skills possessed by adults and the interactions and relationships between these skills and their determinants and outcomes. Two goals of this report are to initiate analysis in these areas and to offer insights and guidance for further work as part of the PIAAC analytical agenda.

Numeracy

Low proficiency in numeracy is widespread among adults. Approximately one third of adults in the participating countries score in the two lowest levels of numeracy proficiency and, in most countries, this is true of at least 50% of the adult population.  Numeracy proficiency is positively related to educational attainment and negatively related to the time elapsed since leaving the education system. In all countries except Hungary, women are found to have poorer numeracy skills than men, though their level of disadvantage is lower for younger than for older age groups.

Numeracy proficiency is linked to labour market outcomes. Higher levels of numeracy skill are associated with lower unemployment rates and higher earnings in all countries. The earnings premium for numeracy appears to vary according to the knowledge intensity of occupations, being greater for workers in occupations with high rather than low knowledge intensity.

Problem solving

As in the cases of literacy and numeracy substantial variation exists in the level and distribution of problem solving skills between countries. Problem solving is found to be related to prose literacy. First, individuals require a basic threshold level of literacy if they are to succeed in demonstrating proficiency in problem solving. Second, there is a correlation between proficiency in literacy and problem solving for those adults with literacy above the threshold, although its strength varies between countries.

As expected, problem solving skills are related positively to educational attainment and negatively to age. However, in contrast to the cases of literacy and numeracy, there are no consistent gender differences in problem solving and the effects of education are less consistent.

Problem solving skills are related to individual labour market outcomes, such as employment and income. However, this degree of influence varies by country and depends primarily on the type of occupation.

Performance across skill domains

In all participating countries a large proportion of adults perform poorly in at least one of the skill domains assessed. Even in the best performing countries (the Netherlands and Norway), low performance in at least one skill domain is the reality for over half of the adult population.

A significant proportion of the adult population has low performance in more than one skill domain. In most countries between a third and one half of adults perform at low levels in at least two of the skill domains assessed, with much higher proportions observed in some countries. While increasing levels of educational attainment reduce the chances of low performance in any skill domain, a significant proportion of adults with tertiary level attainment nevertheless performed poorly in two or more skill domains.

Adults who perform poorly in one or more skill domains have increased chances of being unemployed and having low earnings compared to adults without a skill disadvantage. The larger the number of skill domains in which an individual performs poorly the greater is the labour market penalty in terms of pay.

Adults who perform poorly in multiple skill domains are much less likely than good performers to participate in adult learning and interact with Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) of any kind, despite being among those who apparently need to engage in learning opportunities the most.

Skill match and mismatch

This report has also examined the match between the literacy skills of workers and the intensity of their engagement with literacy-related tasks in their jobs. Depending on the country, between 10% and 30% of the workforce is found to have a literacy 'deficit' relative to the requirements of their jobs. These proportions are found to be similar for literacy 'surplus'. Individuals in deficit and surplus situations co-exist in all countries.

Literacy surpluses tend to be concentrated among younger age cohorts as well as women and immigrants and, thus, may be related to their relatively recent arrival on the labour market.

Interestingly, skills match and mismatch co-vary with participation in adult education and training and the provision of financial support for training by employers. While most training and employer support is directed to workers in situations of high skills match,2 workers in literacy deficit situations tend to receive more training and more employer support than those in skill surplus situations.

From ALL to PIAAC: Developing the key themes

Whilst there is no plan to undertake further waves of ALL data collection with additional countries, international comparative assessments of adult skills continue with PIAAC. The latter represents a further development of the approach initiated with IALS and ALL. It broadens the range of information collected about adult foundation skills, their antecedents and outcomes, particularly in the following areas.

Foundation skills and human capital

ALL increased the range of available information about adult foundation skills by assessing numeracy and problem solving in addition to the literacy domains measured in IALS. PIAAC will further broaden the data base about the portfolios of foundation skills possessed by population groups by collecting information on a range of generic skills used in work and also non-cognitive attributes.

Foundation skills for the information age

Literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills are increasingly entwined with the use of ICTs. In advanced economies many adults – if not most – access, manipulate and communicate a substantial proportion of the information they use in work and everyday life through ICTs. One of the challenges for assessments of foundation skills is the measurement of how well equipped the adult population is to operate within an ICT-rich environment.

ALL offers some insight into the relationship between foundation skills and familiarity with ICTs. In particular it demonstrates the existence of a significant relationship between literacy proficiency and familiarity with and use of ICTs.

PIAAC is designed to take one step further. Rather than assess ICT as a separate skill domain it focuses on the ability of adults to effectively access, understand, analyse and communicate information using ICT tools and applications. For example, the assessment of literacy in PIAAC includes the reading of electronic texts published on websites (PIAAC Expert Group on Literacy, 2010). More fundamentally, a new skill domain – 'problem solving in technology rich environments' – will be assessed in PIAAC (PIAAC Expert Group in Problem Solving, 2010).

Problem solving in technology rich environments is defined as the use of 'digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks.' This domain is conceived in terms of the solution of 'information problems' – i.e. problems which are themselves largely a consequence of the information environment created by new technologies; the problem solution requires the use of computer-based artefacts (e.g. tools, representational formats, computational procedures); and/or the problems are related to the handling and maintenance of technology rich environments themselves.

Change in literacy proficiency with time

ALL offers for the first time information about change over time in the literacy proficiency profiles of adults. The evidence on loss of literacy proficiency in a number of countries and no change in others poses challenges given the general increase in the demand for skilled labour in OECD countries.

PIAAC will enlarge the knowledge base about the evolution of adult skills because it is designed to have links to IALS and ALL in the domains of both literacy and numeracy. Of the countries currently participating in PIAAC, 20 participated in either IALS or ALL and seven participated in both previous assessments. Thus information will become available on change in proficiency for a wider range of countries, covering three points in time for some, and providing the first available information on change in numeracy proficiency.

Characteristics of adults with low skills

Large proportions of adults in OECD countries and other advanced economies have low levels of proficiency in key foundation skills. Low levels of skill are closely associated with poor economic and social outcomes for individuals and population groups.

Beyond the fact that low proficiency is pervasive, little is known about the precise characteristics of the deficits of the low skilled population and, therefore, where remedial interventions should focus attention. PIAAC will increase the amount of information available about adults with poor literacy by collecting data about reading component skills. Building on previous Canadian and US work (Grenier et al., 2008) it extends this to a larger international comparative context. The skills tested represent the basic building blocks of reading competence – knowledge of basic print vocabulary and skills in sentence processing and passage fluency (Sabatini and Bruce, 2009).

Skills used in the workplace

ALL provides evidence on the existence of a relatively high incidence of mismatch between the literacy skills possessed by workers and their level of use of these skills on the job.  Proficiency in literacy is only one, albeit important, component of the human capital of adults, which encompasses a bundle of skills and attributes. An important question is the extent to which this mismatch is specific to the domain of literacy or reflects a mismatch between the portfolio of skills possessed by workers and what they do in their jobs.

PIAAC will offer new insight regarding the demand for skills. Using an approach derived from the Skills Survey in the United Kingdom (Felstead et al., 2007), information will be collected about the incidence and intensity of use of a broad range of generic skills in the workplace, in addition to the use of literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills.

References

Felstead, A., D. Gallie, F. Green and Y. Zhou (2007), Skills at Work in Britain, 1986 to 2006, ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance, Oxford.

Grenier, S., S. Jones, J. Strucker, T.S. Murray, G. Gervais and S. Brink (2008), Learning Literacy in Canada: Evidence from the International Survey of Reading Skills, Statistics Canada, Ottawa.

PIAAC Expert Group on Literacy (2010), "PIAAC Literacy: A Conceptual Framework", OECD Education Working Papers, No. 34, OECD Publishing, Paris.

PIAAC Expert Group in Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments (2010), "PIAAC Problem Solving in Technology Rich Environments: A Conceptual Framework", OECD Education Working Papers, No. 36, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Sabatini, J.P. and K.M. Bruce (2009), "PIAAC Reading Components: A Conceptual Framework", OECD Education Working Papers, No. 33, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Contributors

Yvan Clermont, Statistics Canada

William Thorn, OECD


Endnotes

1. Information regarding PIAAC can be found at www.oecd.org/piaac.

2. Workers with high level literacy skills who work in jobs involving a high level of engagement with literacy.

 

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