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Japan, Finland top in literacy and numeracy skills; Ireland among laggards
By Finfacts Team
Oct 9, 2013 - 4:26 AM

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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 Economy: Finnish lessons for Irish education?

Minister says myth of 'world class' Irish education, a delusion

Ireland

  • In Ireland, the mean proficiency score of 16-65 year-olds in literacy is significantly below the average of the OECD countries participating in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). In numeracy, the mean proficiency score is also significantly below the average.
  • In Ireland, the younger adult population (16-24 year-olds) scores significantly below the average in literacy of the OECD countries participating in the Survey. In numeracy, they score significantly below the average. In both domains, younger adults score than their older counterparts (55-65 year-olds).
  • In Ireland, 14.7% of the adult population (16-65 year-olds) report no prior experience with computers or lack very basic computer skills. In contrast, 25% of the adult population score at the highest levels in problem solving in technology-rich environments, a proportion significantly below the average of the OECD countries participating in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC).
  • In most participating countries, a significant minority have a very low level proficiency in literacy and numeracy. This is also true for Ireland, where 17.4% of the adults score at the lowest levels in literacy and 25.2% in numeracy.

Finland

  • In Finland, the mean proficiency score of 16-65 year-olds in literacy is significantly above the average of the OECD countries participating in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). In numeracy, the mean proficiency score is also significantly above the average.
  • In Finland, the younger adult population (16-24 year-olds) scores significantly above the average in literacy of the OECD countries participating in the Survey. In numeracy, they score significantly above the average. In both domains, younger adults score higher than their older counterparts (55-65 year-olds).
  • In Finland, 8.7% of the adult population (16-65 year-olds) report no prior experience with computers or lack very basic computer skills. In contrast, 42% of the adult population score at the highest levels in problem solving in technology-rich environments, a proportion significantly above the average of the OECD countries participating in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC).
  • In most participating countries, a significant minority have a very low level proficiency in literacy and numeracy. This is also true for Finland, where 10.6% of the adults score at the lowest levels in literacy and 12.8% in numeracy.

OECD reports

Irish results [pdf]

Key findings summary from OECD

Progress across generations

Some countries have made impressive progress over recent decades in equipping more people with better literacy and numeracy skills. Young Koreans, for example, are outperformed only by their Japanese peers, while Korea’s 55 to 64 year-olds are among the three lowest-performing groups of this age. Older Finns perform around the average, while younger Finns are among the top performers, together with Japan, Korea and the Netherlands.


But in England and the United States, the literacy and numeracy skills of young people entering the labour market are no better than those leaving for retirement. England ranks among the top three countries surveyed for literacy skills among the 55-65 year-olds. But the country is in the bottom three when it comes to such skills among 16-25 year-olds. American 55-65 year-olds perform around the average, but young Americans rank the lowest among their peers in the 24 countries surveyed.

 

Gap between skills and educational qualifications

 The Survey revealed large differences in some cases between a person’s actual skill levels and their educational qualifications. In most countries at least a quarter of university graduates fall into the bottom two levels out of five on the literacy test. But in Australia, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands and Norway, more than one in four adults without a high school degree achieved Level 3, showing that people can learn skills despite limited early schooling.

 

Impact of social background varies

Social background has a strong impact on skills in some countries. The children of parents with low levels of education in England, Germany, Italy, Poland and the US have much weaker reading skills than their peers with better educated parents. In contrast, Australia, Estonia, Japan and Sweden show the smallest difference between these two groups.

 

Economic and social impact of skills

On average, the median hourly wage of workers scoring at the top levels (levels 4 & 5) on the literacy scale is 61% higher than that of workers scoring at or below Level 1. Differences in this “return on investment” vary widely: in several countries, such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Sweden, the gap in wages is relatively narrow, but is much wider in the United States, Korea, Ireland, Canada and Germany.

 

Adults with low skills are also more likely to place less trust in others and feel less civically engaged compared with the highly skilled.

 Challenges for immigrants

Immigrants performed worse than the native-born, especially those who did not learn the language of their new country as a child. But skills proficiency improves with length of stay in the host country, pointing to the important role of integration policies.

 

Adult learning

The highly skilled were on average three times more likely to take part in further training than the low skilled. The Survey suggests that Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have been most successful in boosting adult learning rates among the low-skilled. But countries with large shares of low-skilled adults, such as Canada, England and Northern Ireland, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the US, will need to do more to make adult learning more accessible, especially in the workplace.

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.


Literacy for people aged 16-24

1 Finland
2 Japan
3 South Korea
4 Netherlands
5 Estonia
6 Australia
7 Sweden
8 Poland
9 Czech Republic
10 Germany
11 Austria
12 Slovak Republic
13 Denmark
14 France
15 Canada
16 Norway
17 Ireland
18 Spain
19 England/N Ireland
20 United States
21 Italy
22 Cyprus

Literacy for all adults

1 Japan
2 Finland
3 Netherlands
4 Sweden
5 Australia
6 Norway
7 Estonia
8 Slovak Republic
9 Flanders (Belgium)
10 Canada
11 Czech Republic
12 Denmark
13 South Korea
14 England/N Ireland
15 Germany
16 United States
17 Austria
18 Poland
19 Ireland
20 France
21 Spain
22 Italy

Numeracy for people aged 16-24

1 Netherlands
2 Finland
3 Japan
4 Flanders (Belgium)
5 South Korea
6 Austria
7 Estonia
8 Sweden
9 Czech Republic
10 Slovak Republic
11 Germany
12 Denmark
13 Norway
14 Australia
15 Poland
16 Canada
17 Cyprus
18 Northern Ireland
19 France
20 Ireland
21 England
22 Spain
23 Italy
24 United States

Numeracy for all adults

1 Japan
2 Finland
3 Sweden
4 Netherlands
5 Norway
6 Denmark
7 Slovak Republic
8 Flanders (Belgium)
9 Czech Republic
10 Austria
11 Germany
12 Estonia
13 Australia
14 Canada
15 South Korea
16 England/N Ireland
17 Poland
18 France
19 Ireland
20 United States
21 Italy
22 Spain

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