America's High School Graduates Look Like Other Countries' High School Dropouts

Mar 10, 2016
Originally published on March 14, 2016 4:50 pm

A new study confirms what many Americans already knew deep in their hearts: We're not good at math.

Not only that, but when it comes to technology skills, we're dead last compared with other developed countries.

The PIAAC study — the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies — looks at the skills adults need to do everyday tasks, whether it's at work or in their social lives.

"Clearly, we have some work to do in this country," says Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the government's National Center for Education Statistics. The study compared countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Japan and Finland led the group in literacy, math and technology skills, while the United States' performance was average or well below average in each category.


Overall, Americans' everyday literacy skills were average. But if you zoom in and focus on just the young adults, a more complex picture emerges.

Americans who went to college and graduate school did well. They scored above their peers with similar degrees in other developed countries.

For young adults with a high school diploma or less, things did not look so good. These Americans performed significantly worse than those in other countries with the same education level.

"Postsecondary institutions should be happy," says Carr. "But on the other end of the continuum, we have young people coming out of high school — or not graduating from high school — that are struggling with everyday competencies."


Carr says this pattern is even more obvious if you look at the math skills of young adults. This study found that Americans with a high school diploma performed about the same as high school dropouts in other countries.

"We need to think seriously about how to get them functioning better," says Carr.

She offers a sample math problem from the test: You go to the store and there's a sale. Buy one, get the second half off. So if you buy two, how much do you pay?

"High school-credentialed adults, they can't do this task — on average," says Carr.


When it comes to technology skills, the story gets worse. The U.S. came in last place — right below Poland.

The study looked at basic technology tasks: things like using email, buying and returning items online, using a drop-down menu, naming a file on a computer or sending a text message.

Across the board, Americans performed poorly on these tasks. However, there was a significant racial difference, with nonwhites scoring below whites.

"I don't think we were particularly shocked by that finding," says Carr. She points out that these racial differences are similar to what other national and international studies have found.

She says these findings should be concerning to everyone, especially leaders in the business community and in the K-12 school systems.

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There is new data out today that confirms what many Americans already know deep in their hearts. A lot of us are not good at math. And when it comes to everyday technology skills, we are dead last when compared to other developed countries. Here's Gabrielle Emanuel of NPR's Ed team.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Let's start with the bad news Americans are dreadful at technology skills - using email, naming a file on a computer, using a link on a webpage or just texting someone.

PEGGY CARR: No country scored below the U.S.

EMANUEL: Peggy Carr is the acting commissioner of the government's National Center for Education Statistics.

CARR: We performed on par with only one other country - Poland.

EMANUEL: Who took the prize - Japan and then Finland did the best. Carr told me that when she and her team looked at other data about reading and math, they started to notice something interesting. They zoomed in on young adults and saw that those who went to college or graduate school were doing pretty well. In literacy, there were actually doing better than their peers in other countries.

CARR: So that's a bit of good news.

EMANUEL: But here's the kicker. When they looked at Americans who had a high school diploma, they looked a lot like other countries' high school dropouts. We had a lot of work to do.

EMANUEL: That was especially true when it came to math. So want to do a sample math question that Carr gave me? You go to the store, and there's a sale. Buy one; get the second half off. You decide to buy two. How much do you pay?

CARR: High school-credentialed adults - they can't do this task on average.

EMANUEL: What does that tell us about our education system?

CARR: Well, it tells us that we need to think about the preparedness of our students as they're leaving the K-12 system.

EMANUEL: And schools, employers, everybody need to do something about it. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.