The recent ETS report, America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future, the first in a series to be produced by ETS using data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), is an attempt to focus attention on a topic of interest to a broad range of constituencies. The subject of this report is our nation’s millennials, those young adults born after 1980 who were 16–34 years of age at the time of the assessment. The authors chose to center attention on this cohort for several key reasons. First, these young adults include the most recent products of our educational systems. Second, according to recent reports, they have attained the most years of schooling of any cohort in American history. And, finally, millennials will shape the economic and social landscape of our country for many years to come.
One central message that emerges from this report is that, despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous American generation, these young adults on average demonstrate relatively weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to their international peers. These findings hold true when looking at millennials overall, our best performing and most educated, those who are native born, and those from the highest socioeconomic background. Equally troubling is that these findings represent a decrease in literacy and numeracy skills for U.S. adults when compared with results from previous adult surveys.
This report explores the growing importance of education and skills in the context of the larger technological, economic, social, and political forces that have been reshaping America for the past 40 years. To put it bluntly, we no longer share the growth and prosperity of the nation the way we did in the decades between 1940 and 1980.Since around 1975, those who have acquired the highest levels of education and skills have become the big winners, while those with the lowest levels of education and skills have fared the worst. Millions of hard-working Americans who believed they were strongly anchored in the middle class have fallen into joblessness and economic insecurity. As the authors note, these changes have both immediate and long-term consequences for families, communities, and the nation as a whole.
The findings also offer a clear caution to anyone who believes that our policies around education should focus primarily on years of schooling or trusts that the conferring of credentials and certificates alone is enough. While it is true that, on average, the more years of schooling one completes, the more skills one acquires, this report suggests that far too many are graduating high school and completing postsecondary educational programs without receiving adequate skills. If we expect to have a better educated population and a more competitive workforce, policy makers and other stakeholders will need to shift the conversation from one of educational attainment to one that acknowledges the growing importance of skills and examines these more critically. How are skills distributed in the population and how do they relate to important social and economic outcomes? How can we ensure that students earning a high school diploma and a postsecondary degree acquire the necessary skills to fully participate in our society?
Some may argue that we need not pay attention to these findings, that comparative international assessments such as PIAAC do not yield valid results. If PIAAC was the only study to raise a cause for concern, then perhaps that case could be made. The fact is that other educational surveys, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), have reported similar results for our high school seniors. In 2013, NAEP reported that 74 percent of the nation’s twelfth graders were below proficient in mathematics and 62 percent were below proficient in reading. In addition, organizations such as ACT, which evaluates the college and career readiness of the young adult population in the United States, recently reported that nearly one out of three high school graduates (31%) taking its exam failed to meet any of the four college readiness benchmarks in English, math, reading, and science, suggesting they are not well prepared for first-year college coursework. Similarly, the College Board reported in 2013 that 57 percent of SAT takers failed to qualify as “college ready.” The PIAAC data, therefore, is not anomalous; in fact, it forms part of a broader picture of America’s skills challenge.
To be sure, the skills challenge we face is complex and multifaceted, but we need to first acknowledge there is a problem. I believe we are at a crossroads. As a nation, we can to decide to accept the current levels of mediocrity and inequality or we can decide to address the skills challenge head on. The choices we make will provide a vivid reflection of what our nation values.
To read the full report visit www.ets.org/millennials.