The importance of measuring adult literacy and numeracy

In February 2021, the Australian government launched its research into “Adult Literacy and Its Importance”. The first four areas of activity of the study all relate to the subject of “What we know about the skills of adults”. They include:

  • the relationship between socio-demographics and adult literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills
  • the impact reading and numeracy skills have on an individual’s labor force participation and wages
  • Links between literacy and social outcomes such as health, poverty, ability to care for family members and participation in civil life
  • the relationship between parents’ literacy skills and their children’s education, and literacy development from birth to post-secondary education.

Australia’s best source of information on adult literacy and numeracy is data from international assessments of adult competences – the most recent being the OECD’s Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), implemented in 2011/12. ACER assessment experts were heavily involved in developing reading and arithmetic tasks for PIAAC and its predecessor studies, with one member serving in the Numeracy Expert Groups.

PIAAC was administered to a random representative sample in Australia by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, excluding remote indigenous adults and incarcerated adults. The oversampling of selected cohorts allowed the performance of states and territories to be compared.

What do we know about Australian skills?

The Australian PIAAC results show that a significant number of people between the ages of 15 and 74 do not have access to sufficient basic literacy skills to do justice to life and work in the 21st century.

Around 44 percent (7.3 million) of Australians reached the lowest two grades for literacy, while about 55 percent (8.9 million) reached the bottom two grades for arithmetic.

PIAAC also included an assessment of adult problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments (PSTRE). As the OECD explains, knowledge in this area reflects the ability to use information and computer technology (ICT) to solve the types of problems that adults often face in modern society.

Around 44 percent (7.5 million) of Australians were classified as low-skilled in the PSTRE. Another 25 percent (4.2 million) could not be classified because they either refused the computer-based test, failed a basic ICT test or had no computer experience.

The PIAAC results confirm that reading and numeracy skills are strongly linked to socio-economic background. Longitudinal studies have also identified cross-generational patterns of low achievement, where adults with poor literacy skills are more likely to have children who also struggle with these skills.

For some churches in Australia, it takes a lot more work to understand the achievement. There is a scandalous lack of up-to-date, evidence-based information on levels of literacy and numeracy among Australian Indigenous adults. Australia has chosen not to include indigenous adults too often in PIAAC 2011/12 and to exclude indigenous peoples in remote areas. But the persistently poor reading and numeracy skills of indigenous school children in NAPLAN strongly suggest that adult literacy skills are almost certainly lagging at least as far behind those of the non-indigenous population of Australia.

Why are adult skills important?

The ability to make informed decisions in life requires good basic reading and numeracy skills – be it making decisions at work or shopping; Follow written instructions on any medical or health matter; Make decisions in financial matters; or understand the implications of gambling.

PIAAC results show that millions of Australian teenagers and adults lack such basic skills and may be disempowered – especially as we move further into the 21st century and its demands for higher and more flexible skills.

Research shows that poor literacy and numeracy skills have a negative impact on the individual’s social and economic future. Conversely, adults with high literacy and numeracy skills are much more likely to be in good health, gain employment, higher incomes, positive social attitudes, and more active participation in community life.

There is also evidence that investing in improving people’s literacy and numeracy skills has economic benefits for the entire nation – including GDP and productivity.

What do we do now?

As a signatory to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Australia has set itself the goal of “ensuring that all young people and a significant proportion of adults, both men and women, read and do arithmetic by 2030”. However, recent data suggests that Australia is making little or no progress towards this goal.

The results of the corresponding international OECD survey of 15-year-olds, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), show that the performance of Australian young people in the areas of reading and arithmetic has declined significantly since PIAAC last measured adult skills. The flow-on effects are obvious.

One of the key recommendations in ACER’s filing was that it is critical that Australia fully participate in the next PIAAC 2022 cycle to see and review how Australian adults are doing at the national, state and territorial levels – including remote indigenous adults and Detained adults – have performed reading, writing, arithmetic and problem-solving skills.

This will provide up-to-date evidence on the factors identified in the Parliamentary Inquiry Mandate and SDGs, and will allow for policy research on both adult education and the schooling that young people take into the world as adults.

Find out more:

Read ACER’s full post on the Parliamentary Inquiry into Adult Literacy and Its Importance.