IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

New IES Grantee Focuses on Improving Adult Literacy

In her first IES grant, Dr. Elizabeth Tighe (Georgia State University) is taking expertise honed in both an NCER predoctoral fellowship and PIAAC methods training program to help further adult literacy research. Her earlier work includes developing assessments for adults with low literacy, leveraging statistical approaches to understand these adults’ abilities and difficulties, and using eye-tracking paradigms to explore their ability to self-monitor during reading. 

Program officer, Meredith Larson, interviewed Dr. Tighe about her previous work and new grant.

What is your general area of research, and why is it important?

I focus on adult struggling readers, which comprises roughly 36 million (1 in 6) adults in the U.S. Only a fraction of these adults enroll in adult education programs, which are plagued by insufficient funding, high teacher turnover rates, and a lack of research-based instructional practices and curricula. By better understanding these adults’ strengths and deficits and how best to measure their skills, I aim to inform and improve adult education programs.

What could people do with your research?

My research could directly inform how we help adults become stronger readers, and this can improve educational outcomes, such as GED attainment. I am working towards building better assessments for adult education practitioner and researcher use. My longer-term goal is to design a curriculum to teach morphology (e.g., prefixes and suffixes) and use this to improve adults’ vocabulary and reading comprehension.

What are you trying to learn through your new IES project?

For this grant, I’m using the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a large-scale, international assessment of adult literacy, numeracy, and digital problem-solving skills, to create risk profiles of adults with low literacy skills. This sort of information could move us closer to being able to individualize instruction in adult education programs to match the needs of specific learners.

We will use PIAAC data to explore how demographic characteristics (age, race/ethnicity, educational background, employment status) and malleable factors (enjoyment of learning, frequency of computer use, reading and writing behaviors at home and at work) influence low literacy performance.

Further, we are examining whether risk factors differ by whether someone has a high school diploma and whether someone has participated in education or training recently. We will also explore whether reading components and literacy skills are predictive of low-skilled adults’ numeracy skills.

Our findings could have important implications for understanding risk factors and predictors of low literacy as well as low numeracy. As stated previously, 1 in 6 U.S. adults have low literacy skills and nearly 1 in 3 have low numeracy skills. For GED attainment, adults must demonstrate proficiency in both of these areas (along with science, social studies, and writing knowledge). It’s important to have targeted, individualized instruction for these adults because they may have time or resource barriers.

How did this particular research project arise?

I first learned about PIAAC at a summer institute. I was intrigued, in particular, because PIAAC is the first assessment of this size to include a reading component supplement for lower-skilled adults.

I recently attended a 3-day NCER/ETS PIAAC training workshop, which allowed me to work with PIAAC data and network with others. This workshop influenced my decision to apply for an IES grant. I felt that a 2-year grant using extant data would be a great way to combine my interests regarding individual differences in adults’ component skills and get my feet wet with IES as a new investigator. I am excited to bridge my interests and grow as a researcher by learning and working alongside two experts (Drs. Yaacov Petscher and John Sabatini) in the larger reading and education field!

Family, Work, and Education: The Balancing Act of Millions of U.S. Adults

For U.S. adults with low skills or low academic attainment, finding the time or resources to go back to school can be difficult because of family and work obligations. Recently released NCES tables from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) give us a clearer sense of how many adults face this challenge. With this information, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers can better understand and meet the education and training needs of working adults and parents.

How large is the concern?

Previous PIAAC analyses found that nearly 20 percent of U.S. adults score at the lowest levels of literacy, nearly 30 percent score at the lowest levels of numeracy, 14 percent of U.S. adults have less than a high school diploma, and 27 percent have no more than a high school diploma or equivalent. But how many of these adults have family or work responsibilities that may complicate their participation in education?

According to the new NCES tables, millions of adults have low skills or low attainment and family or work obligations that may complicate participation in education or training.

  • Of the over 40 million adults at the lowest levels of literacy, nearly 56 percent are employed, 77 percent have children, and 44 percent are both employed and have children.
  • Of the nearly 63 million adults at the lowest levels of numeracy, nearly 56 percent are employed, 74 percent have children, and 42 percent are both employed and have children.
  • Of the nearly 31 million adults with less than a high school diploma or equivalent, nearly 49 percent are employed, 58 percent have children, and 32 percent are both employed and have children.
  • Of the nearly 58 million adults with less than a high school diploma or equivalent, approximately 64 percent are employed, 71 percent have children, and 45 percent are both employed and have children.

What do we know about how to serve adults with family or work obligations?

Currently, the research on improving outcomes for adults with low skills or low attainment is limited, and less is known on how to help such adults who have family or work obligations.

Examples of questions facing policymakers, practitioners, and researchers include:

  • How do current education and training programs benefit working adults or parents?
  • Are work or family obligations barriers, motivational factors, or both?
  • Are multi-generational approaches (e.g., those that combine postsecondary or adult education services with Head Start or early childhood education) able to improve the academic outcomes of adults and the children they care for?
  • Are the assessments used appropriate for adults?

IES offers opportunities for researchers to conduct this sort of work through its Postsecondary and Adult Education topic and disseminate information about promising practices. For more information about funding opportunities for such research, contact Dr. Meredith Larson.

About the PIAAC

The PIAAC is an international assessment for adults that assesses cognitive skills (literacy, numeracy, and problem solving) and contains data on educational background, workplace experiences and skills, and other items. For the purposes of this blog, the category of lowest levels is defined as Below Level 1 and Level 1.

 

By Meredith Larson, NCER Program Officer

 

Teach a Researcher to Fish: Training to Build Capacity for IES Data Analysis

The Institute of Education Sciences is pleased to announce upcoming training opportunities to help researchers study the state of adult skills and competencies. Training Researchers to Use PIAAC to Further Multidisciplinary Research is a hands-on, interactive training to build the field’s capacity for conducting research using data from the OECD Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

Picture of students participating in trainingThe training, conducted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), aims to teach researchers how to use IES data and data tools for further, independent research beyond the training so that they can meet the emerging needs of policymakers and practitioners needs for years to come.

This program is an example of the various ways that IES is building the evidence base in education. The training is supported by a Methods Research Training grant from the National Center for Education Research. It uses PIAAC data, which in the U.S. were collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The training also uses data tools that are available through NCES.

Beginning this August, ETS is holding 3-day and 1-day PIAAC trainings in cities throughout the U.S. These trainings will bring together researchers from various organizations and institutions to learn not only about the data and tools but also about how to use them to address important questions about policy-related research from a wide host of fields including education, gerontology, sociology, public health, economics, workforce development, and criminal justice and corrections education. These trainings will culminate with an IES/ETS-sponsored conference in Washington, D.C. in December 2018, during which participants will have an opportunity to present their research.

Who is Eligible?

Researchers from universities, research firms, or other organizations (e.g., advocacy groups, local governments) and who have a doctoral degree or are graduate students in a doctoral programs, experience with statistical packages (e.g., SAS, SPSS) and with secondary data analysis, and an interest in adult learning, skills, and competencies.

What Does it Cost?

The training itself is free for participants, and participants who are U.S. citizens or U.S. permanent residents will receive assistance to cover housing and per diem during the training. Visit the training website for more information about possible finical assistance.

When is the Training? How do I Apply?

The training will take place several times in the coming months:

  • August 30-Sept. 1, 2017 in Chicago;
  • October 2-4, 2017 in Atlanta; 
  • December 4-6, 2017 in Houston;
  • April 13, 2018 in New York City (at the AERA Annual Conference)
  • Culminating Conference: December 1-3, 2018, in Washington, DC

Visit the ETS training website for more information about the program and the most up-to-date schedule. Registration is open and can be completed online.

Written by Meredith Larson, Program Officer, National Center for Education Research

 

Education and Training Opportunities in America’s Prisons

By Dana Tofig, Communications Director, Institute of Education Sciences

The latest results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) reinforce some of what we know about the connection between education and incarceration—adults in prison, on average, have less formal education and lower literacy and numeracy skills than adults living in U.S. households.  But what about the education and training adults receive while in prison?

A recent publication—Highlights from the U.S. PIAAC Survey of Incarcerated Adults—provides information about the education and training that is received inside prison walls, in addition to providing data on the skills of incarcerated adults. This information is important because more than half of the prisoners surveyed (54 percent) were scheduled to be released within two years of their participating in PIAAC and most will likely try to enter the work force.

A look at PIAAC

The PIAAC Survey of Incarcerated Adults was conducted in 2014 and involved a representative sample of 1,300 prisoners who took assessments in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. Most of them also completed a questionnaire that asked about their demographics and educational attainment, among other things. The results were compared to non-incarcerated adults in U.S. households who took the same assessments and completed a similar questionnaire as part of the national PIAAC program.  

The results show that 30 percent of incarcerated adults had attained less than a high school diploma—twice the percentage for U.S. households (14 percent). And more incarcerated adults scored at the lowest levels in both the literacy and numeracy assessments (see chart).


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, U.S. National Supplement: Prison Study 2014, PIAAC 2012/14


Education and Training in Prison

The survey results show that at least some of the prisoners had opportunities to work, take academic classes, and receive job training and certification during their current incarceration. About 61 percent of those surveyed reported having a job in prison. But many prisoners reported that their jobs “never” needed them to use the type of literacy and numeracy skills which are important in the work force.

For instance, nearly half (47 percent) of incarcerated adults with jobs reported “never” reading directions or instructions as part of their current prison job, and 82 percent reported “never” working with fractions, decimals, or percentages. By comparison, in the household population surveyed as part of PIAAC, approximately 12 percent of adults reported “never” reading directions or instructions as part of their current job, and 34 percent reported “never” working with fractions, decimals, or percentages.

In terms of education, 70 percent of prisoners who were not currently taking an academic class or program said they wanted to participate in one. Among those prisoners, the programs they most wanted to participate in were to earn a certificate from a college or trade school (29 percent), a high school diploma/GED (18 percent), an Associate’s degree (18 percent), a Bachelor’s degree (14 percent), and a pre-associate education (13 percent).

However, despite the high interest in academic programs, most prisoners surveyed (58 percent) had not furthered their education during their current incarceration (see chart).


# Rounds to zero.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, U.S. National Supplement: Prison Study 2014, PIAAC 2012/14


Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of prisoners surveyed said they had participated in some type of job training during their current incarceration and another 14 percent were on a waiting list for such training. Among those who participating in job training, 63 percent said self-improvement was an important reason for participating and 43 percent said it was to improve their post-incarceration job opportunities (respondents could choose more than one answer).

Of those who had not participated in training and were not on the wait list, 30 percent said they were not eligible to attend, 19 percent said they were not interested in the programs offered, and 11 percent said they did not have the necessary qualifications.

The results of the 2014 PIAAC Survey of Incarcerated Adults provide a tremendous amount of information that can inform the work of researchers, policymakers, and others who are interested in the skills, education, and training of America’s prison population. Anyone interested in exploring these data can do so online through the International Data Explorer (IDE) at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/international/ide/. For more information on PIAAC, please go to http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/.

 

Examining the workforce skills of U.S. unemployed, young, and older adults: Updated data from the PIAAC

By Stephen Provasnik and Holly Xie

Educational attainment is one of the most common measures of workforce preparation and is certainly an important indicator of whether someone is job-ready. But this one metric does not fully capture the variety of skills that can be important to potential employers. One way that NCES measures the basic workplace skills and abilities of U.S. adults is through the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).[1] 

PIAAC includes a number of assessments designed to evaluate real-world skills in three important areas:

  • Literacy: The literacy assessment measures the extent to which respondents can understand, evaluate, use, and engage with written text in different contexts, such as home, work, and community;
  • Numeracy: The numeracy assessment evaluates respondents’ ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information that is deemed to be important in the workplace; and
  • Problem solving in technology-rich environments: This skill area assesses respondents’ use of digital technology, communication tools, and networks to gather and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.

The newly released Skills of U.S. Unemployed, Young, and Older Adults in Sharper Focus: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) 2012/2014 describes the workforce skill levels of unemployed adults (age 16-65), young adults (age 16-34), and older adults (age 66-74). The report, along with additional data on the NCES website, includes results from the assessments described above, as well as information about respondents’ educational background, work history, the skills they use on the job and at home, their civic engagement, and their health and well-being.

The PIAAC results show a connection between skills and employment. For instance, more than 75 percent of unemployed adults (age 16-65) had attained a high school credential or less. Roughly one-third of these adults (with a high school credential or less) scored at the lowest levels in literacy and about half scored at the lowest levels in numeracy. Overall, adults who were unemployed or out of the labor force performed worse than their employed peers in all areas of the PIAAC.


Percentage of adults age 16 to 65 at each level of proficiency on the PIAAC numeracy scale, by employment status: 2012 and 20141

1United States data are the U.S. PIAAC 2012/2014 data. PIAAC international average is calculated from the U.S. PIAAC 2012/2014 data and international data from 2012 for all other countries shown in this report. Country- and region-specific results are available at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/results/makeselections.aspx.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), Skills of U.S. Unemployed, Young, and Older Adults in Sharper Focus: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) 2012/2014: First Look


Among young adults age 16-34, the higher the level of education completed, the larger the percentages of young adults at the highest proficiency levels in all three skill areas, and the smaller the percentages at the lowest levels. This pattern was not seen among older U.S. adults (age 66-74). Among older U.S. adults, there was no measurable difference in the percentage performing at the highest levels in literacy or numeracy between those who had a bachelor’s degree and those who had a graduate or professional degree.


Percentage of adults age 66 to 74 at each level of proficiency on the PIAAC literacy scale, by highest level of educational attainment: 2014

# Rounds to zero.
‡ Reporting standards not met. Sample size insufficient to permit a reliable estimate.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), Skills of U.S. Unemployed, Young, and Older Adults in Sharper Focus: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) 2012/2014: First Look.


Much more data can be read in the full report. Additional PIAAC data will be released later this year, including information about adults who were incarcerated.

For more information, check out this video:

 


[1] The PIAAC survey is coordinated internationally by the OECD. NCES implements PIAAC in the United States. PIAAC is a household survey administered by trained data collectors to a nationally-representative sample of adults, ages 16 through 65, in each country, in the official language(s), and in most cases, in respondents’ homes on a laptop computer. PIAAC was first conducted in 2011-2012 and results were released in October 2013 with data from 23 countries, including the United States.

The findings reported here are based on data from the first round of PIAAC and a second round conducted in 2013-2014 in the United States to collect additional data on key subgroups of the adult population. To learn more about the U.S. administration and reporting of PIAAC, as well as related data tools, see https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/piaac/.