International survey shows large adult literacy gap between the more and less educated in the United States

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) assesses adult competency on an international scale, using the Survey of Adult Skills. The survey assesses adults aged 16-65 on literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments. The OECD focuses on these three skills because they are necessary for full participation in society, relevant to a variety of contexts, and learnable. The United States as well as Ecuador, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, and Peru participated in the most recent round of data collection in 2017, and the United States also administered the assessment in 2012-2014.

The results of the survey allow researchers to calculate averages across all OECD countries for several measures. In addition to skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving, the relationships between these skills and other variables are calculated on average across all participating OECD countries. These averages provide a valuable baseline for comparing country-specific results.

The research found that the gap in literacy proficiency between high- and low-educated adults is greater in the United States than on average for other OECD countries. The research also shows that the relationship between parental education and the skills of adult children is stronger than it is in other OECD countries on average. Finally, the study found that higher proficiency in literacy has a positive impact on other beliefs and behaviors, like trust in others, political efficacy, and self-reported health.

What do these findings mean about literacy in the US relative to the rest of the world? While adult literacy proficiency is impacted by a person’s education and their parents’ education across the countries included in the study, those relationships are even stronger in the US. US adults who did not pursue further education and had parents with lower education levels had lower literacy proficiency than they might if they lived elsewhere in the world. Libraries strive to provide additional access to literacy skills, and these results show that the need for that access is still great, particularly for those who have less educational experience.

Note: This post is part of our series, “The LRS Number.” In this series, we highlight statistics that help tell the story of the 21st-century library.