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Adult literacy and numeracy - what’s the story?

Adult literacy and numeracy are important to Australia’s economic and social health, so we need to understand the full picture, says Juliette Mendelovits.

International assessment programs assist governments in regularly monitoring the outcomes of education systems within an internationally accepted common framework. This educational monitoring at the national and international level is a way to track progress in the provision and quality of schooling, and post-schooling education and training. Such educational monitoring is also a way to track the skills and knowledge of the post-school population.

Bodies like the Australian Industry Group, the Industry Skills Council, Skills Australia and the Council of Australian Governments’ Standing Council on Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment recognise the importance of adult literacy and numeracy to Australia’s economic health, and have used the results of international adult skills surveys to draw attention to low levels of literacy and numeracy in some sectors of the Australian workforce.

An obvious further purpose of Australia’s participation in studies like the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey and the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is to compare ourselves with other countries – especially those with broadly similar characteristics to our own, and those with whom we have important economic relationships.

What are the international literacy surveys?

IALS was conducted from 1994 to 1998 in 21 countries; ALL between 2003 and 2007 in 11 countries; and PIAAC in 2011 and 2012 in 24 countries. Because there has been some consistency across the domains or skills assessed in IALS, ALL and PIAAC, and because they use common items and reporting scales, it is possible to provide comparable measures from IALS to ALL to PIAAC, although trends between ALL and PIAAC have not been published to date.

One of the main reasons that trends between ALL and PIAAC are not yet available is that there has been a change in the construction of the proficiency scales in the surveys, and a shift in the meaning of the five literacy and numeracy levels against which results are reported. A significant shift in the reporting of PIAAC’s results and those of the previous survey is that, whereas IALS and ALL referred to Level 3 as a benchmark of minimum proficiency, statements of this kind about literacy and numeracy will not be made about PIAAC at the international level.

‘Illiteracy’ and ‘innumeracy’?

Nevertheless, In September 2013, around the time that the PIAAC results were released internationally in early October, a media story reported that half of all adult Tasmanians were ‘functionally illiterate’ and ‘functionally innumerate’. This story was clearly based on Australian results from PIAAC, in which 49 per cent of Tasmanian adults were below Level 3 in literacy, and 59 per cent below Level 3 in numeracy.

The media report was misleading in several ways. Firstly, although Tasmania’s results in both ALL and PIAAC were the lowest of the Australian states, only a few percentage points separate Tasmanians’ performance in literacy and numeracy from that of adults in other states. Secondly, ‘functionally illiterate’ and ‘functionally innumerate’ are crude and sensationalist versions of the standard described by ALL, in which Level 3 was referred to as the ‘minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work.’ And thirdly, even such a nuanced statement about a minimum standard has now been explicitly repudiated as inappropriate by the latest OECD report on adult skills.

If Australia is to determine what standards of literacy and numeracy are required by its citizens for national economic and social prosperity, not to mention for personal wellbeing, we will need to study our own skills needs and determine what levels are needed for our own context – or, rather, for the many different contexts in which Australians lead their lives. Such a project, for all its challenges, would be well worth pursuing.

Half empty or half full?

A further antidote to the gloom that might be cast by the glass-half-empty focus on ‘illiterate’ and ‘innumerate’ adults is the fact that according to PIAAC literacy results, Australian adults performed significantly above the average and above Canada, Korea, the United States, England and Northern Ireland. Amongst the participating countries, only Japan, Finland and the Netherlands significantly outperformed Australia. Moreover, Australian adults performed comparatively strongly in the newly assessed skill area of problem solving in technology-rich environments, with mean performance above the OECD average. The comparative picture is less rosy for numeracy, in which Australia’s performance was only average.

PIAAC results by income, age and gender

PIAAC shows a very strong association between income and skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving. Taking numeracy as an example, 33 per cent of workers in the bottom 10 per cent, by earnings, are at or below Level 1, while only three per cent of workers in the top 10 per cent are at or below Level 1. The percentages are almost reversed at the other end of the skills range, with five per cent of workers in the bottom 10 per cent and 39 per cent of workers in the top 10 per cent demonstrating numeracy skills that place them at Level 4 or 5.

Australians’ literacy and numeracy skills improve from age 15 to the mid-20s, plateau and then decline. For women the decline appears around the age of 30, and for men beyond 40. In problem solving, skills are steady from age 15 to around age 40, and then decline.

While men perform significantly better than women in numeracy, men and women demonstrate similar levels of proficiency in problem solving and literacy. Interestingly, we know from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that at age 15 girls perform significantly better than boys in reading literacy. The discrepancy between the PIAAC and PISA results raises questions about the existence of either a generational difference or a closing of the gap during adulthood.

The process of finding answers to questions such as these will be assisted by current work at ACER, sponsored by the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, to investigate the comparability of the different standards of assessment programs like ALL, PIAAC, PISA and others. This work will contribute to a fuller understanding of adult literacy and numeracy skills in Australia. ■

Further information:
This article draws on ‘What’s the adult L&N story? The results from international assessments of adult literacy and numeracy skills,’ presented by Juliette Mendelovits at the 17th Annual National Conference of the Centre for the Economics of Education and Training in November.

RD

About the author

Juliette Mendelovits is research director and general manager for the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) UK, based in London.

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