New data spotlights literacy gaps among Americans at the state and local level

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, May 26, 2020

Data released recently from the US Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences is providing a first-of-its-kind look at American adults’ literacy and numeracy gaps at the state and local (county) level. The data comes from the widely respected Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Survey of Adult Skills, also known as the PIAAC. The new data will be a powerful tool for advocates looking to illustrate the impact of skill gaps on their local economies.

The U.S. PIAAC Skills Map is an interactive mapping tool that enables members of the public to view estimates of adult literacy and numeracy skills in each of the fifty US states and 3,000+ counties. These estimates are based on data collected in three rounds of US PIAAC survey (2012, 2014, and 2017) as well as data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2013-2017).

The mapping tool provides estimates of the proportion of US adults ages 16–74 who have the lowest levels of proficiency (at or below Level 1 of the PIAAC), versus those with middle proficiency (at Level 2), or the highest levels of proficiency (at or above Level 3). The tool also allows users to make statistical comparisons between various states and counties.

More information about the data source is available at the PIAAC Gateway website. Sample test questions from the PIAAC assessment are also available for users to review.


Using this data for advocacy

Advocates can use PIAAC data to illustrate the number of adults in their communities who lack key literacy and numeracy skills. This information can help explain the need for adult education services such as high school equivalency or English language classes. It can highlight the importance of accelerated learning strategies such as Integrated Education and Training that combine instruction in foundational skills with training for a specific industry.

Data can help policymakers understand who in their communities lacks key foundational skills, and how greater investment in public policies to support education and workforce development can help to upskill local residents. Data can also help local chambers of commerce, economic developers, and business leaders to understand the potential economic impact of upskilling their incumbent workforce.

National Skills Coalition used PIAAC data as the basis for our 2017 Foundational Skills in the Service Sector report focusing on retail, hospitality and healthcare workers, and an accompanying webinar. (View slides and recording.)

NSC also used PIAAC data to inform recent research specifically focused on digital literacy skills, including industry-specific fact sheets for manufacturing, health and social work, hospitality, retail, and construction as well as the Applying a Racial Equity Lens to Digital Literacy fact sheet. An additional, full-length digital literacy data report is forthcoming.

Stay tuned for additional updates from NSC on using the PIAAC local-level data for skills policy advocacy.