This report, the first in a series to be produced by Educational Testing Service using data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), is an attempt to focus attention on a topic of interest to a broad range of constituencies. The subject of this report is our nation’s millennials, those young adults born after 1980 who were 16–34 years of age at the time of the assessment. The authors chose to center attention on this cohort for several key reasons. First, these young adults include the most recent products of our educational systems. Second, according to recent reports, they have attained the most years of schooling of any cohort in American history. And, finally, millennials will shape the economic and social landscape of our country for many years to come.

One central message that emerges from this report is that, despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous American generation, these young adults on average demonstrate relatively weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to their international peers. These findings hold true when looking at millennials overall, our best performing and most educated, those who are native born, and those from the highest socioeconomic background. Equally troubling is that these findings represent a decrease in literacy and numeracy skills for U.S. adults when compared with results from previous adult surveys.

This report explores the growing importance of education and skills in the context of the larger technological, economic, social, and political forces that have been reshaping America for the past 40 years. To put it bluntly, we no longer share the growth and prosperity of the nation the way we did in the decades between 1940 and 1980. Since around 1975, those who have acquired the highest levels of education and skills have become the big winners, while those with the lowest levels of education and skills have fared the worst. Millions of hard-working Americans who believed they were strongly anchored in the middle class have fallen into joblessness and economic insecurity. As the authors note, these changes have both immediate and long-term consequences for families, communities, and the nation as a whole.

The findings also offer a clear caution to anyone who believes that our policies around education should focus primarily on years of schooling or trusts that the conferring of credentials and certificates alone is enough. While it is true that, on average, the more years of schooling one completes, the more skills one acquires, this report suggests that far too many are graduating high school and completing postsecondary educational programs without receiving adequate skills. If we expect to have a better educated population and a more competitive workforce, policy makers and other stakeholders will need to shift the conversation from one of educational attainment to one that acknowledges the growing importance of skills and examines these more critically. How are skills distributed in the population and how do they relate to important social and economic outcomes? How can we ensure that students earning a high school diploma and a postsecondary degree acquire the necessary skills to fully participate in our society?

Some may argue that we need not pay attention to these findings, that comparative international assessments such as PIAAC do not yield valid results. If PIAAC was the only study to raise a cause for concern, then perhaps that case could be made. The fact is that other educational surveys, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), have reported similar results for our high school seniors. In 2013, NAEP reported that 74 percent of the nation’s twelfth graders were below proficient in mathematics and 62 percent were below proficient in reading. In addition, organizations such as ACT, which evaluates the college and career readiness of the young adult population in the United States, recently reported that nearly one out of three high school graduates (31%) taking its exam failed to meet any of the four college readiness benchmarks in English, math, reading, and science, suggesting they are not well prepared for first-year college coursework. Similarly, the College Board reported in 2013 that 57 percent of SAT takers failed to qualify as “college ready.” The PIAAC data, therefore, is not anomalous; in fact, it forms part of a broader picture of America’s skills challenge.

To be sure, the skills challenge we face is complex and multifaceted, but we need to first acknowledge there is a problem. I believe we are at a crossroads. As a nation, we can decide to accept the current levels of mediocrity and inequality or we can decide to address the skills challenge head on. The choices we make will provide a vivid reflection of what our nation values.

Irwin S. Kirsch
Ralph Tyler Chair in Large-Scale Assessment and
Director of the Center for Global Assessment
Educational Testing Service

Executive Summary

Millennials may be on track to be our most educated generation ever, but they consistently score below many of their international peers in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE). The results of this report help shed light on the growing inequality of opportunity in the U.S. and the impact this has on both skills acquisition and outcomes for both current and future generations.

In an effort to develop a clearer picture of the distribution of skills demanded by modern societies, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) undertook the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a new survey of adult skills. Unlike school-based surveys, which focus on specific ages or grades of in-school students, PIAAC was designed as a household study of nationally representative samples of adults age 16 to 65.1 This report disaggregates the PIAAC data for millennials—the cohort born after 1980. Key findings are summarized below and detailed supporting data can be found in the full report. All differences noted are statistically significant.

How do the average scores of U.S. millennials compare with those in other participating countries?

  • 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.

How do U.S. top-performing and lower-performing millennials compare to their international peers? What is the degree of inequality in the score distribution?2

  • 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.

How do millennials with different levels of educational attainment perform over time and in relation to their peers internationally?

  • Although a greater percentage of young adults in the U.S. are attaining higher levels of education since 2003, the numeracy scores of U.S. millennials whose highest level of education is high school and above high school have declined.
  • Since 2003, the percentages of U.S. millennials scoring below level 3 in numeracy (the minimum standard) increased at all levels of educational attainment.
  • U.S. millennials with a four-year bachelor’s degree scored higher in numeracy than their counterparts in only two countries: Poland and Spain.
  • The scores of U.S. millennials whose highest level of educational attainment was either less than high school or high school were lower than those of their counterparts in almost every other participating country.
  • Our best-educated millennials—those with a master’s or research degree—only scored higher than their peers in Ireland, Poland, and Spain.

What impact do demographic characteristics have on the performance of U.S. millennials?

  • Among all countries, there was a strong relationship between parental levels of educational attainment and skills; across all levels of parental educational attainment, there was no country where millennials scored lower than those in the United States.
  • The gap in scores between U.S. millennials with the highest level of parental educational attainment and those with the lowest was among the largest of the participating countries.
  • In most countries, native-born millennials scored higher than foreign-born millennials; however, native-born U.S. millennials did not perform higher than their peers in any other country.

These results should be considered against a backdrop of larger social, economic, technological, and political forces that are shaping our society. In addition, the PIAAC data suggest that simply providing more education may not hold all the answers. 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. As a country, we need to confront not only how we can compete in a global economy, but also what kind of future we can construct when a sizable segment of our future workforce is not equipped with the skills necessary for higher-level employment and meaningful participation in our democratic institutions.

  1 Twenty-four countries participated in the PIAAC assessment for literacy and numeracy. This report does not include data for the Russian Federation or Cyprus. Only 19 countries participated in the PS-TRE assessment. For more information about the PIAAC assessment, see appendix A.

  2 Detailed disaggregated data are provided only for the numeracy results.

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