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Assessing adult numeracy
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Assessing adult numeracy

Research 4 minute read

An ACER numeracy expert is taking a lead role in the development of the next international survey of adult skills.

Assessing adult numeracy

Senior Research Fellow in Numeracy and Mathematics in the Vocational, Adult & Workplace Education unit at ACER, Dave Tout, was appointed by the OECD in January 2018 as the Chair of the Numeracy Expert Group for the OECD’s Cycle 2 of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

A 2017 OECD report on Australia’s performance in the first cycle of the PIAAC found that numeracy is a significant problem for Australians, particularly young women.

Building Skills for All in Australia: Policy Insights from the Survey of Adult Skills re-examined data from the first PIAAC survey (2011/12) and found that:

  • Numeracy is a particular challenge in Australia
  • Signs of poor numeracy performance can be traced back to initial schooling
  • Women have weaker numeracy skills than men
  • There is a relatively large gap between the most proficient and least proficient adults in literacy and in numeracy
  • Many well-educated adults have low literacy and/or numeracy skills.

It revealed that more than 3 million Australians – one-fifth of the working population ­– are living with the consequences of low basic skills and cannot reach a Level 2 proficiency in literacy and/or numeracy on a scale that goes up to Level 5.

Why does this matter?

These findings are important because, as this OECD blog explains, literacy and numeracy are critical to a citizen’s full participation in the workforce, and in society more broadly, and crucial to individual wealth and prosperity. Interestingly, numeracy has also been positively linked to good health; an additional OECD report that was released in July 2018 demonstrated a strong correlation between health and numeracy. The data suggests that, all things being equal, people with very strong numeracy skills who use numeracy frequently in a wide range of situations report a significant health advantage over other adults.

The Survey of Adult Skills measures the proficiency of representative samples of adults in more than 40 countries in key information-processing skills – literacy, numeracy and problem solving – and gathers information and data on how adults use their skills at home, at work and in the wider community. These surveys and reports about Australia’s performance have been instrumental in highlighting the issue of adult literacy and numeracy in Australia, and helped to dispel the myth that Australia is a fully literate society. They also informed policy in the area, and formed the impetus for and basis of the Australian Government’s National Foundation Skills Strategy.

Full Australian results of the first cycle of PIAAC are available from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who conducted the survey in Australia, alongside a report undertaken by the Productivity Commission.

Planning for the second cycle of PIAAC is underway

Planning and development for the second cycle of the PIAAC survey began in early 2018, with the actual survey due to be conducted in 2021/22 and results and reports planned for release and publication in 2023. This follow up survey and its data will enable further analysis and research to be undertaken about the performance of youth and adult Australians’ skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving, including assessing changes in our performance since the last survey.

Expert Groups have been appointed and the definitions, constructs and frameworks that drive the surveys are being updated to better reflect 21st century skills and literacy, numeracy and problem solving demands. New assessment content is now being developed to reflect those changes and updates.

A wide range of international and country reports about the results of the survey and the resulting research are available from the OECD:

Further reading:

Read the paper from a related presentation, ‘Are Australian mathematical foundations solid enough for the 21st century’, given by David Tout and ACER Principal Research Fellow (Educational Monitoring and Assessment) at Research Conference 2016 here.

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