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Too Big To Fail: Millennials on the Margins
Anita Sands and Madeline Goodman

Understanding PIAAC

As stated, the purpose of PIAAC is to measure the key cognitive and workplace skills needed for individuals to participate in society and for economies to prosper. Real-world tasks in literacy and numeracy probed respondents' ability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information; correctly fill out online insurance forms; integrate, synthesize, and interpret arguments offered in various forms of media; understand employment requirements; and calculate the costs and benefits of retirement plans, to name a few.37 In other words, PIAAC, as a household assessment of adults and young adults—unlike other international and national assessments of in-school populations (e.g., the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study [PIRLS], the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA], Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS], and the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP])—is designed to gauge functional skills required for living a mature and independent adult life. These more broadly defined skills often clearly intersect with those that are foundational and useful for gainful employment, yet we also need to recognize that they are essential for individuals to traverse the complex systems present in our everyday lives.38 Moreover, in a period when there is increased attention paid to our ability to critically evaluate the unprecedented amounts of information encountered daily, these skills have never been more crucial to having an informed and engaged citizenry.39

Throughout this report we will be discussing both the average score of millennials and the percentage of millennials who perform at select proficiency levels on the PIAAC literacy and numeracy assessments.40 Proficiency levels on PIAAC range from a low of below Level 1 to a high of Level 5. This report will look primarily at the percentage of millennials performing at the lowest levels (at or below Level 1 and those at Level 2) compared to those performing at or above Level 3. According to the OECD, Level 3 represents a "minimum" standard in both the literacy and numeracy domains.41 Exhibit 1 provides additional information on PIAAC proficiency levels by domain; for a full description of all proficiency levels and sample questions, see Appendix B.

The results presented here were obtained using the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement's IDB Analyzer, which creates SPSS or SAS syntax that takes into account the sample and assessment design in the computation of results.42Differences (either between countries or specific groups of adults within the United States) in this report are noted in the text only if they are determined to be statistically significant (p < .05). No statistical adjustments to account for multiple comparisons were used.43

Exhibit 1


At or below Level 1
  • Likely can read very brief texts on familiar topics to locate a single piece of information, using basic vocabulary
  • Have difficulty cycling through or integrating two or more pieces of information contained in a text
  • Have difficulty navigating within digital texts to access and identify information from various parts of a document
At Level 2
  • Likely are capable of identifying simple paraphrasing or making low-level inferences
  • Struggle to understand lengthy texts (multiple pages), navigate more complex online digital documents, or evaluate one or more pieces of information
  • Struggle to compare, contrast, or reason about information provided
At or above Level 3
  • Likely can navigate and understand texts that are multiple pages or are in a complex digital format
  • Likely can identify, interpret, or evaluate one or more pieces of information that may require varying levels of inference
  • Likely can perform tasks that require respondent to construct meaning across large chunks of texts or perform multi-step operations
  • Likely are able to read and disregard information that is irrelevant to answer questions correctly
At or below Level 1
  • Likely can carry out simple operations: counting, sorting, performing basic arithmetic with whole numbers or money
  • Likely can recognize common spatial representation in concrete, familiar contexts where mathematic context is explicit with little or accompanying text or distractors
  • Likely struggle to perform tasks that require two or more steps involving calculation with whole numbers and common decimals, percents, fractions, simple measurement and spatial representation
At Level 2
  • Likely can interpret simple data and statistics in texts, tables or graphs.
  • Likely struggle to recognize and work with mathematic relationships, patterns, and proportions expressed in text or numerical form
  • Likely struggle to interpret and perform basic analysis of data and statistics in texts, tables and graphs
At or above Level 3
  • Likely can identity and act on mathematical information and ideas embedded in a range of common contexts
  • Likely can perform tasks that require several steps and the choice to use problem-solving strategies and related processes
  • Likely can recognize and work with mathematic relationships, patterns, and proportions expressed in text or numerical form
  • Likely can interpret and perform basic analysis of data and statistics in texts, tables and graphs


37 This report focuses on the literacy and numeracy domains.

38 OECD Skills Outlook 2013.

39 Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew, "Why Students Can't Google Their Way to Truth," Education Week, Commentary, November 1, 2016,

40 Data on the problem solving in technology-rich environments domain have not been included in this report because the benchmarks for this domain vary from those of numeracy and literacy. See Appendix B for a detailed description of the proficiency levels for literacy and numeracy.

41 OECD, Time for the U.S.

42 See the IEA Data Repository,

43 Results, sample items, access to online tools, and other information regarding the U.S. administration of the PIAAC assessment are available at