OECD Education Working Papers

This series is designed to make available to a wider readership selected studies drawing on the work of the OECD Directorate for Education. Authorship is usually collective, but principal writers are named. The papers are generally available only in their original language (English or French) with a short summary available in the other.

English, French

Literacy and Numeracy Proficiency in IALS, ALL and PIAAC

This paper analyses proficiency in literacy and numeracy in the countries that have participated in the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS, administered between 1994 and 1998), the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL, administered between 2003 and 2007) and the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC, administered in 2012). While many countries experienced small to modest changes in literacy proficiency between IALS and PIAAC, others saw sizeable variations, mostly on the negative side. In the shorter span that separated ALL and PIAAC, numeracy proficiency clearly declined (except in Italy), while literacy moved less on average (except for the large increase registered in Italy and the large decline experienced by Norway). Changes in the composition of the population have had little impact on observed changes in scores. Larger variations took place within different socio-demographic groups, but these tended to cancel each other out on aggregate. In particular, large variations are observed by age and levels of education. Older adults in PIAAC are generally more proficient than their IALS counterparts, probably due to the increase in educational attainments that took place over recent decades. On the contrary, tertiary-educated individuals appear to be on average less proficient than in the past, which may signal that the expansion of tertiary education has been accompanied by a decline in the average quality of university graduates (or of university instruction). There is also no evidence that the change in delivery mode, with a switch to a computer-based assessment in PIAAC, had any significant effect on performance. However, the OECD is unable to ascertain how differences in implementation and technical standards affect the comparability of the data, so that a certain degree of caution should always be exercised in interpreting these results. Amongst the countries that experienced larger changes in literacy proficiency between surveys, a close inspection of IALS data (in particular through an investigation of response patterns at the item level) highlights some anomalies in Italy and Poland (and, to a lesser extent, in England and Northern Ireland), suggesting that particular caution should be exercised in interpreting the evolution of proficiency in these countries.


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