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Ann McFeatters: Kids aren't the only Americans who are below global standards

I have just picked up (dropped) the 882-page report on a comparison of adult math and technical and workplace skills around the world. Fellow American adults, we are in trouble.

This voluminous new report (I counted the number of pages just to make certain I could, but gave up tabulating the immense number of graphs, charts and tables and superabundancy of acronyms) says that we Americans lag behind much of the rest of the developed world's adults when it comes to things such as deciding which muscles will benefit the most if you use the gym bench or knowing how to access and delete your email.

This was the first computerized large-scale assessment of adult skills assessed over a period of years and designed to reflect the changing nature of information, its role in society and its impact on people's lives.

The testing of more than 150,000 of people from ages 16 to 65 in 24 countries was done by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Sadly, we can't discount the scores by knocking the institution that brought us this gift; it is highly respected.

First the bad news. In literacy achievement level skills, the United States scored below the international average. We were topped, in order of scores, by Japan, Finland, Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, Estonia, Belgium, Russian Federation, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Canada, Korea, United Kingdom, Denmark and Germany.

Now for more bad news. As for proficiency with numbers, we ranked behind Japan, Finland, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Slovak Republic, Czech Republican, Austria, Estonia, Germany, Russian Federation, Australia, Canada, Cyprus, Korea, United Kingdom, Poland, Ireland and France.

In Italy and Spain, more than one out of 20 people perform at the lowest levels of competency. In most countries, it is one out of 10. In the United States, older people are about average in math but those between 16 and 20 are at the bottom. Korea is one of the worst for 50-to-60-year-olds but one of the best for teens. In Japan and Finland, one out of every five people performs at the highest level.

I know what you are asking about a test that took about 2 1/2 hours. What skills were examined? The list is formidable. Here are just a few life skills people were tested on: returning a lamp, buying orchestra tickets, preparing party invitations, booking accommodations, determining eligibility for club president, hitting "Reply All," knowing what inflation is, determining urban population, reading a gas gauge and an odometer, reading election results, reading a milk label, doing library research, explaining generic medicines, making international calls, deciphering the body-mass index and something about the Baltic Stock Market.

The survey was done before a question could be asked on why the U.S. government has been shut down. But there doesn't seem to be an answer to that question anyway.

The message of the OECD, which plans to continue its surveys, is that learning must not stop when school ends. (It could also be that moms should rule the world.) The other message is that today's workplace, no matter what country you live in, requires the ability to analyze information, solve problems and work on a team. Life skills such as communicating well and meeting deadlines promptly are more essential than ever.

People who scored poorly on the survey are more likely to be in bad health and be unemployed. But the ranks are large. The report concludes: "Many adults have difficulties coping with literacy and numeracy related demands that are common in modern life and work. Although relative proportions vary, there are significant numbers of adults with low skills in all the countries surveyed." Personal note: After painstakingly counting the pages in this hefty report, which took a not-inconsiderable amount of time, I discovered that if you look the report up on the Internet, the pages are automatically counted for you. Give me a zero in workplace skills.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.


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