Americans Are Way Behind in Math, Vocabulary, and Technology

The United States ranks lower than other developed countries in many key skills, according to a new report.
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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

A new global report (pdf) by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finds that Americans rank well below the worldwide average in just about every measure of skill. In math, reading, and technology-driven problem-solving, the United States performed worse than nearly every other country in the group of developed nations.

Americans have trouble with words…
 
The report defines literacy as the “ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” (p. 63). Only 78.3 percent of American adults reached a Level 2 (out of 5) in literacy, less than all other OECD members save Spain and Italy (p. 69). The average level of literacy in the U.S. is on par with that of Cyprus, Poland, and Austria (p. 65).
 
OECD Literacy
OECD

…and numbers…

When it comes to math, American adults aren’t any better. In fact, they’re far worse.

Numerical proficiency in the U.S.—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” (p. 77)—ranks near the bottom of all participating countries.
 

 

Numeracy OECD
OECD

Fewer than 34 percent of adults in the U.S. managed to score at a Level 3 (out of 5) or higher, while comparable numbers for countries like Japan, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands were all well above 50 percent (p. 80). The US also has the second largest proportion of adults—9.1 percent—who scored below a Level 1, the most basic level of literacy (p. 81).

…and even computers

Americans are pretty behind when it comes to computer literacy, too. US adults scored toward the bottom in problem solving in a technology-rich environment, which the report describes as the intersection of “computer literacy” and “cognitive skills required to solve problems” (p. 88).

Computer literacy OECD
OECD

The U.S. scored on par with Estonia, Ireland and Poland, and had more adults with proficiencies below Level 1—15.8 percent—than another other participating country (p. 89).

The problem mainly boils down to lacking skills among American young adults. Take a look:
 
Computer literacy young adults OECD
OECD

While older American adults (aged 55-65) scored better than any other country, young adults did just the opposite: They were the most computer-challenged of the 20 participating countries (p. 110). 

 

Problem solving OECD
OECD

This post originally appeared on Quartzan Atlantic sister site.
Presented by

Roberto A. Ferdman is a reporter at Quartz, where he focuses on Latin American business and economics.

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