Skills in Sharper Focus: The PIAAC National Supplement

The U.S. National Supplement of the Survey of Adult Skills, 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, released on March 10, 2016, provides an update and extension of the initial U.S. PIAAC[1] data, reported in 2013. The Survey provides direct measures of working-age adults’ cognitive skills based on their performance on literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving tasks set in real-life contexts. Performance is reported on a scale of 1-5 for literacy and numeracy and a scale of 1-3 for digital problem solving. It pairs these measures with a background questionnaire that asks about the use of skills at work and in daily life, work history, and other social, behavioral, and demographic indicators.

The National Supplement, collected in 2014, augments the 2012 data collection with an enriched sample of young adults (age 16-34), unemployed adults (age 16-65), and older adults (age 65-74) in the United States. A sample of incarcerated adults is expected to be released in summer 2016. Additionally, the newly released data uses updated U.S. Census data, resulting in adjusted estimates. As a result, the data reveal that the percentage of the U.S. population age 16-65 with college experience (some college or a college degree) increased by 3-4 percent and the percentage of the population age 16-65 with less than a high school diploma decreased by 4 percent.[2] This adjustment is evident in a slight upward adjustment of the U.S. performance in literacy to being on par with the international average, relative to the 2013 report.

The skills of older adults (66-74) were surveyed in the newly released data for the first time. The previous survey of this population’s literacy and numeracy skills was in 2003 as part of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL)[3]. The Survey of Adult Skills includes older adults’ skills in digital problem solving, information that will be of great interest to senior digital literacy designers and advocates.

Other select findings include:

  • Compared with the international average distribution for numeracy and digital problem solving, the United States had a smaller percentage at the top and larger percentage at the bottom.
  • About 75 percent of unemployed adults age 16-65 had a high school credential or less education.
  • Across all three domains, a larger percentage of adults age 16-65 who were unemployed and out of the labor force performed at or below Level 1 compared with adults who were employed (see figures 3-A, 3-B, and 3-C).
  • Unemployed adults (16-65) reported having been diagnosed or identified as having a learning disability in greater percentages (13 percent) than the general population (8 percent).

Learn more about the Survey and the National Supplement at

[1] The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) Survey of Adult Skills is coordinated internationally by the OECD. The Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) implements PIAAC in the United States. Results were first released in October 2013 with data from 23 countries. 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. In the United States, the survey was first administered in 2011-12. To learn more about the U.S. administration and reporting of the survey, as well as related data tools, see

[2] See Appendix C of Skills of U.S. Unemployed, Young, and Older Adults in Sharper Focus.

[3] See