New Study Shows Americans Fall Behind Other Nations in Literacy and Math

Although workers face a demanding labor market and jobs that require advanced skill sets, a new study shows that Americans fall below the global average when it comes to basic skills, including literacy and math.

The study, released Tuesday by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), highlights how the youngest Americans — including those with a college education — are still outperformed in certain skill sets by their peers in 23 other countries surveyed.

Credit: Salvatore Vuono at

Credit: Salvatore Vuono at

Overall, Americans scored about as high as the French and Italians in math proficiency, but slightly lower than Canadians and Koreans, the study found. Japan posted the highest score in math proficiency, followed by Finland and Belgium. In overall literacy proficiency, the U.S. scored about as high as Germany, Denmark and England, but far below Japan, Finland and the Netherlands.

The findings also suggest that higher education does not necessarily equate to better skill sets. The United States ranks significantly higher internationally in the proportion of 25-34 year-olds with “tertiary attainment” than they do in literacy or numeracy proficiency among the same age group, according to the study.

The challenge for the U.S. is that its workers lack critical skill sets that help bolster U.S. competition within key industries that drive the economy, including manufacturing. As certain low-skilled tasks in the sector become more automated, proficiency requirements are shifting.

A wide range of manufacturing processes, for example, rely heavily on computer numerical control (CNC) machines and require skilled workers that know how to maneuver and program them. Even as the industry requirements shift, employers face a shortage of workers who have mastered the core skill sets.

Among 55-65 year-olds, the United States performs about average globally in numeracy skills — 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.”

But the country ranks lowest in numeracy among all 23 participating countries when comparing proficiency among 16-24 year olds.

Workers who lack specific skill sets, including information-processing and literacy comprehension, are more likely to earn lower salaries than their peers with higher skill sets, the OECD study found.

“…The median hourly wage of workers scoring at Level 4 or 5 in literacy — those who can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle truth claims or arguments in written texts — is more than 60 percent higher than for workers scoring at Level 1 or below,” according to the study.




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