Comparing higher and lower performers

In a report published in 2007, Kirsch, Yamamoto, Braun, and Sum argued "our nation is in the midst of a perfect storm—the result of a confluence of three powerful forces—that is having a considerable impact on our country." 22 The authors identified the "widespread disparity" in the literacy and numeracy skills of America's adult population as one of these three forces (the other two being changes in the economy and distribution of wealth, and sweeping demographic transformations in terms of immigration and population growth) contributing to this storm. There is growing recognition that the disparity in skills and the increasingly large percentage of the adult population without adequate skills contributes to a continued cycle of income inequality that may, in turn, diminish growth. 23

Examining how our higher (those at the 90th percentile) and lower (those at the 10th percentile) performers compare to those in other countries provides us crucial insight often lacking when viewing performance from only a national perspective. National, state, and even district-level assessments such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provide benchmarks as to how well American schoolchildren at specific grade levels perform in key subjects. In reporting these results, however, we risk becoming focused on small gains; international comparisons provide us an opportunity to compare the knowledge and skills of similar groups to gain a broader perspective on our overall performance. In addition, examining the gap in performance between our lower and higher performers allows us to gauge the distribution of skills and compare it to that in other countries.

Figure 5 shows the scores for millennials at the 10th and 90th percentiles and the gap in performance between these ends of the score distribution. Among the OECD countries that participated in PIAAC, the United States has a high degree of inequality in the distribution of its numeracy skills (in fact, the highest) coupled with very low rankings at both ends of the distribution. At the lower end of the performance distribution (the 10th percentile), there was no other country where millennials scored lower than those in the U.S. The score for U.S. millennials at the 90th percentile was higher than that of their counterparts in only one country: Spain. The best performing millennials in 14 of the other 21 participating countries—nearly three-quarters—out performed our best. Figure 5 shows not only the absolute size of the gap in each country between performers at the 10th and 90th percentiles, but also how that gap manifests itself in relative terms when comparing among countries. For example, while the U.S. has a gap (139 points) comparable to that of Australia (132), Canada (131), and Sweden (128), the distribution of scores in those countries is quite dissimilar to the U.S. In the other three countries, those at the lower and upper ends of the distribution outperform their U.S. counterparts. In England/Northern Ireland, Italy, and Spain, both our score distributions and gaps are more similar.

There are important ramifications in the pattern of the U.S. skills distribution and its connection to social and economic outcomes. As Kirsch et al. indicate:"...educational attainment and skills are strongly and positively associated with annual earnings and access to the more highly skilled professional and management positions in the U.S. labor market." Reducing inequality in the distribution of skills does not solve all aspects of economic and social inequality; however, it clearly plays an important role. Without improving the skill level of those at all points in the distribution, there is little chance of meaningfully altering the economic outlook for many. 24

The PIAAC data expose two equally alarming issues about the distribution of the performance of our millennials compared to those of other countries: Both our lower and higher performers score at the bottom with respect to their peers, and our inequality is among the highest of all participating countries. These findings obviously raise questions about the quality of our educational system at the K-16 level, but they compel us to consider issues beyond that. Because skills are more closely bound to success in the labor market, skill inequalities will lead to increasing polarization and greater economic inequalities. These in turn will tend to have a reinforcing effect on the broader society, creating deeper divisions between the haves and have-nots. The following sections will explore how educational attainment relates to skills acquisition and explore these issues in more detail.

22 Irwin Kirsch, Kentaro Yamamoto, Henry Braun, and Andy Sum, America's Perfect Storm (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 2007).

23 Kirsch et al., America's Perfect Storm; Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC, "How Increasing Income Inequality Is Dampening U.S. Economic Growth, and Possible Ways to Change the Tide" (Standard & Poor's, 2014),

24 Kirsch et al., America's Perfect Storm, 23.