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PIAAC: Monitoring adult literacy,  numeracy and problem-solving skills

PIAAC: Monitoring adult literacy,  numeracy and problem-solving skills

Research 4 minute read

A new international study of adult literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills promises to help governments monitor the impact of current vocational, adult and workplace education programs. Juliette Mendelovits explains.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (OECD PIAAC) is a new international study of adult literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills (OECD). The first administration is taking place in 2011 and 2012 in 26 countries, including Australia.

The assessment, a household survey of adults between the ages of 16 and 65, follows and is linked with previous international surveys: the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), administered in 22 countries and regions between 1994 and 1996; and the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills (ALL) Survey conducted in 2003 and 2006 in 12 countries and regions. Australia has put its hand up to participate in all three of these surveys: IALS in 1996, the ALL Survey in 2006,  and PIAAC which was administered across Australia between October 2011 and February 2012.

PIAAC seeks to measure the skills and competencies needed by adults in the 21st century, including online literacy, numeracy and problem-solving in a technology-rich environment. PIAAC is computer-delivered in all three domains.

The international consortium that is managing the assessment on behalf of the OECD commissioned ACER to develop all of the new literacy tasks for PIAAC, drawing on both development originated at ACER and on contributions from participating countries. In addition, ACER Senior Research Fellow Dave Tout serves on the PIAAC international numeracy expert group, and previously served on the numeracy expert group for the ALL Survey.

While Australia participated in both IALS and the ALL Survey, our focus on adult literacy development otherwise has been intermittent at best: there was a surge of activity in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and then a hiatus until about 2010 when, following the report on Australia’s performance in ALL, both industry and government began taking a renewed interest in, and concerted steps to improve, adult skills in language, literacy and numeracy.

Current industry awareness and government policy in the vocational, adult and workplace education sector is now leading to a focus on engaging disadvantaged groups, and improving the literacy and numeracy levels of the existing workforce and those looking to enter the workforce. For example, there is broad industry support for the implementation of literacy and numeracy achievement standards for trade qualifications for those seeking entry into the energy sector. The key is ensuring that adults who do not meet the entry standard are supported to address identified shortfalls.

In another development, the national Industry Skills Councils are evaluating the feasibility of assessing technical, pedagogical and administrative aspects of trainers and teachers of adults. For example, within two years it is planned that all vocational education teachers will themselves require certification that indicates they have satisfactory levels of literacy and numeracy proficiency.

The value of international adult literacy studies is now recognised at a policy level in Australia. The Council of Australian Governments, comprising state, territory and federal government representatives, will be using the PIAAC results, scheduled for release in 2013, to monitor language, literacy and numeracy, and the impact of current vocational, adult and workplace education programs addressing language, literacy and numeracy.

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