In this blog, NCER program officer, Dr. Meredith Larson, interviews Dr. Holly Xie from NCES about the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), an OECD-developed international survey of adult skills in literacy, numeracy, and digital problem solving administered at least once a decade. PIAAC also collects information on adult activities (such as skill use at home or work, civic participation, etc.), demographics (such as level of education, race), and other factors (such as health outcomes). To date, NCER has funded three research grants (here, here, and here) and one training grant that relied on PIAAC data.
NCES has led the U.S. efforts in administering PIAAC and has been sharing results for over a decade. PIAAC in Cycle I (PIAAC I) included three waves of data collection in the United States with the first data released in 2013. From PIAAC I, we learned a wealth of information about the skills of U.S. adults. For example, the 2017 wave of data collection found that the percentages of U.S. adults performing at the lowest levels were 19 percent in literacy, 29 percent in numeracy, and 24 percent in digital problem solving. As we look forward to learning from PIAAC II, Dr. Xie reflects on the products from PIAAC I and possibilities for PIAAC II (release in 2024).
What is your role at NCES and with PIAAC specifically?
I am the PIAAC national program manager and oversee all aspects of the PIAAC study in the United States, including development and design, data collection, analysis and reporting, and dissemination/outreach. I also represent the United States at PIAAC international meetings.
What is something you’re particularly excited about having produced during PIAAC I?
I am most excited about the U.S. PIAAC Skills Map. The Skills Map provides information on adult skills at the state and county levels. Users can explore adult skills in literacy and numeracy in their state or county and get estimates of literacy or numeracy proficiency overall and by age and education levels. Or they can compare a county to a state, a state to the nation, or compare counties (or states) to each other. The map also has demographic and socioeconomic data from the American Community Survey (ACS) to provide context for the state or county estimates. This YouTube video demonstrates what the map can do.
We also have other PIAAC web products and publications such as national and international reports, Data Points, and PIAAC publications that provide invaluable information on U.S. adult skills and interrelationships of those skills to other social, economic, and demographic factors.
Do you have examples of how information from PIAAC I has been used?
PIAAC data cover results at the national, state, and county levels, and as such, they can be useful for policymakers or decision makers who would like to know where things stand in terms of the skills of their adult population and where they need to allocate resources at these different levels of the system. In other words, PIAAC data can be useful for drafting targeted policies and programs that will benefit their population and constituencies.
For instance, at the national level, former Vice President Biden used information from PIAAC I in his report Ready to Work for the June 2014 reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, known as WIOA. PIAAC was also cited in the discussion of extending the Second Chance Pell experiment as identified in the 2019 report titled Prisoners’ Eligibility for Pell Grants: Issues for Congress.
The Digital Equity Act of 2021 also leveraged the PIAAC. This legislation identifies particular populations that determine the funding formula. The quick guide to these populations uses PIAAC to estimate one of these populations: Individuals with a language barrier, including individuals who are English learners and have low levels of literacy.
Local governments have also used PIAAC products. For example, the Houston Mayor’s Office for Adult Literacy in collaboration with the Barbara Bush Foundation used the PIAAC Skills Map data to inform the Adult Literacy Blueprint.
And the adult education advocacy group, ProLiteracy, also used the PIAAC and the Skills Map to develop a toolkit for local program adult education and adult literacy program advocacy.
When will the results of PIAAC II be available, and how does this cycle differ from PIAAC I?
PIAAC II data collection began in 2022 and results will be released in December 2024 and will include information on the literacy, numeracy, and adaptive problem-solving skills of adults in the United States. The numeracy assessment now includes a measure of “numeracy components,” which focus on number sense, smaller/bigger number values, measurement, etc. This information will help us learn more about the skills of adults who have very low numeracy skills. The adaptive problem-solving component is a new PIAAC module and will measure the ability to achieve one’s goals in a dynamic situation in which a method for reaching a solution is not directly available.
PIAAC II will also include, for the first time, questions about financial literacy in the background questionnaire, using items on managing money and tracking spending and income, savings methods, and budgeting. These additional questions will allow people to explore relationships between foundational skills, financial literacy, and other constructs in PIAAC.
What types of research could you imagine stemming from the PIAAC II?
One of the most unique features of PIAAC (both PIAAC I and II) is the direct assessment of literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills (information that no other large-scale assessment of adults provides). Thirty-one countries, including the United States, participated in PIAAC II (2022/23), so researchers will be able to compare the adult skills at the international level and also study trends between PIAAC I and PIAAC II.
It’s worth noting that the data collection took place while we were still experiencing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This may provide researchers opportunities to explore how the pandemic is related to adults’ skills, health, employment, training, and education status.
Where can the public access data from PIAAC?
Researchers can find information about the available data from the national U.S. PIAAC 2017 Household, PIAAC 2012/14 Household, and PIAAC 2014 Prison datasets, and international and trend datasets on the NCES Data Files page. PIAAC restricted-use data files contain more detailed information, such as continuous age and earnings variables, that can be used for more in-depth analysis. Accessing the restricted-use data requires a restricted-use license from NCES.
NCES also has an easy-to-use online analysis tool: the International Data Explorer (IDE). The IDE allows users to work directly with the PIAAC data and produce their own analyses, tables, regressions, and charts. An IDE tutorial video provides comprehensive, step-by-step instructions on how to use this tool. It contains detailed information about the content and capabilities of the PIAAC IDE, as well as how the PIAAC data are organized in the tool.
This blog was produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), research analyst and program officer for postsecondary and adult education, NCER.