A groundbreaking international survey of numeracy and literacy skills in 24 countries, organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has found that Japan and Finland were in the lead while Ireland was below average.
In the Irish survey conducted by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) of 6,000 adults aged 16-65 from an international sample of around 166,000 in the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), it was found that almost one in five Irish residents, 17.9%, struggle with basic literacy skills, for example common day routines such as reading labels on supermarket shelves.
Adults in Ireland have an average (mean) score on the literacy scale of 266 compared to the study average of 270. This adjusted mean score places Ireland 17th out of 24 participating countries, and in a group with Germany (267), Poland (267), Austria (266), Flanders (Belgium) (266) and Northern Ireland (265), whose literacy mean scores are not statistically different from that of Ireland . Japan (294) and Finland (288) have the highest literacy mean scores (adjusted).
Countries with the largest proportions of adults scoring at or below the basic Level 1 include Italy (27.7%), Spain (27.5%) and France (21.6%), while Japan (4.9%), Finland (10.6%), the Slovak Republic (11.6%) and the Netherlands (11.7%) have the smallest proportion of adults scoring at or below Level 1.
Adults in Ireland aged 16–65 have a mean score of 255 on the numeracy scale, significantly below the PIAAC average score of 266. This adjusted mean score places Ireland 19th out of 24 participating countries and in a group with Northern Ireland (255) and France (253). Japan and Finland score the highest on numeracy with adjusted mean scores of 286 and 282 respectively.
About one quarter (25.6%) of adults in Ireland score at or below Level 1 on the numeracy scale compared to just 20% (20.2%) on average across participating countries. This percentage is not statistically different from Poland (23.5%), England (25.5%) and Northern Ireland (26.6%), but is lower than the percentage at this level in France (28.9%), Spain (31.4%), Italy (32.3%) and the United States (32.9%). Japan is the only country that has less than 10% of adults at or below Level 1 on numeracy proficiency.
Problem solving in technology-rich environments proficiency was also tested in PIAAC. This assessed the respondent’s ability to use a number of common computer applications (e.g. email, spread sheets, word processing, internet browser) to complete various tasks.
The distribution of adults across the different levels of the problem solving scale is reduced by the proportion of adults who said they had no computer experience (10% in Ireland as against an 8% study average), failed the basic computer skills assessment (5% in both Ireland and internationally) and the proportion of adults (17% in Ireland versus the study average of 10%) who opted not to take a computer-based assessment even though they had previously used a computer.
More than two-fifths (42%) of adults in Ireland score at or below Level 1 (29.5% at Level 1, 12.6% below Level 1) on the problem solving scale, the same as the study average (42%). Ireland is in a large group of six other countries with a similar proportion at this level, including Finland (40%), Estonia (43%) and Sweden (44%).
At the top end of problem solving proficiency 25% of Ireland's adults are at Levels 2 and 3 compared to 34% on average internationally. This is significantly more than Poland (19%) but not statistically different from Northern Ireland (29%), Estonia (28%) or the Slovak Republic (26%).
Finfacts has often highlighted how Finland responded to its economic crisis in the early 1990s with a radical overhaul of its education system.
Irish results [pdf]
PIAAC focuses on three specific skill areas or domains: literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments. The OECD has labelled these areas “key information processing skills” because they are necessary for fully “participating in the labour market, education and training, and social and civic life”. A comprehensive framework constructed by expert groups underlies each of the skill domains (OECD, 2012), and these groups also guided the development of the assessment items. The assessment tasks were designed to imitate tasks that an individual might face in everyday life.
The literacy tasks generally required the respondent to read through texts of varying complexity to find specific pieces of information. The structure of the presented texts included, for example, newspaper articles, websites and posters. As with literacy, the numeracy tasks were based on real-world problems and ranged from simple addition and subtraction to the calculation of averages, percentages and the estimation of quantities. The format of the tasks included supermarket price tags, food labels, graphs and tables containing numbers.
In the third skill area, problem solving tasks required the respondent to interact with one or more common computer applications to solve a problem. In some cases this was as straightforward as responding to a simple email, whereas other tasks involved navigating through a series of web pages to find the answer to a question. For example, one task required the respondent to find specific information on a spreadsheet and enter it in a web-based form.
Literacy: Literacy is defined as the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, achieve one’s goals, and develop one’s knowledge and potential.
Literacy encompasses a range of skills from the decoding of written words and sentences to the comprehension, interpretation, and evaluation of complex texts. It does not, however, involve the production of text (writing).
Information on the skills of adults with low levels of proficiency is provided by an assessment of reading components that covers text vocabulary, sentence comprehension and passage fluency.
Numeracy: Numeracy is defined as the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.
To this end, numeracy involves managing a situation or solving a problem in a real context, by responding to mathematical content and concepts represented in multiple ways.
Problem solving in technology-rich environments: Problem solving in technology-rich environments is defined as the ability to use digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks.
The assessment focuses on the abilities to solve problems for personal, work and civic purposes by setting up appropriate goals and plans, and accessing and making use of information through computers and computer networks.
Around 166 000 adults aged 16-65 were surveyed in 24 countries and sub-national regions: 22 OECD member countries – Australia, Austria, Belgium (Flanders), Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom (England and Northern Ireland), and the United States; and two partner countries – Cyprus and the Russian Federation
The language of assessment was the official language or languages of each participating country. In some countries, the assessment was also conducted in widely spoken minority or regional languages.
Sample sizes depended primarily on the number of cognitive domains assessed and the number of languages in which the assessment was administered. The achieved samples ranged from a minimum of approximately 4 500 to a maximum of nearly 27 300.