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Data shows a significant number of Australians lack sufficient foundation skills in reading and numeracy.
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The importance of measuring adult literacy and numeracy

Comment 8 minute read

The Australian Council for Educational Research’s submission to the parliamentary inquiry into adult skills highlights the importance of these skills to Australia’s well-being and economy, and calls on the government to continue participation in an international assessment to monitor outcomes and improve adult education.

The Australian Government launched its inquiry into ‘adult literacy and its importance’ in February 2021. The inquiry’s first four Terms of Reference all relate to the topic of ‘what we know’ about adult skills. They cover:

  • the relationship between socio-demographic characteristics and adult literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills
  • the effect that literacy and numeracy skills have on an individual’s labour force participation and wages
  • links between literacy and social outcomes such as health, poverty, ability to care for family members and participation in civic life
  • the relationship between parents’ literacy skills and their children’s education, and literacy skill development from birth to post-secondary education.

Australia’s best source of information about adults’ literacy and numeracy is data from international assessments of adult skills – the most recent being the OECD Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which was conducted in 2011/12. ACER assessment experts have been extensively involved in the literacy and numeracy task development for PIAAC and its predecessor studies, with one staff member serving on the Numeracy Expert Groups.

PIAAC was administered in Australia by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to a random representative sample, excluding remote Indigenous adults and incarcerated adults. Oversampling of selected cohorts enabled state and territory performance to be compared.

What do we know about Australian skill levels?

Australia’s PIAAC results demonstrate that a significant number of people aged from 15 to 74 years old do not have access to sufficient foundation skills in reading and numeracy to be able to cope equitably with life and work in the 21st century.

Around 44 per cent (7.3 million) of Australians achieved in the lowest two bands for literacy, while about 55 per cent (8.9 million) achieved in the lowest two bands for numeracy.

PIAAC also included an assessment of adults’ problem solving skills in technology-rich environments (PSTRE). As the OECD explains, proficiency in this domain reflects the capacity to use information and computer technology (ICT) to solve the types of problems adults commonly face in modern society.

Around 44 per cent (7.5 million) of Australians were classified as low skilled in PSTRE. A further 25 per cent (4.2 million) were not able to be classified because they either opted out of the computer-based test, failed a basic ICT test or had no computer experience. 

Results from PIAAC confirm that literacy and numeracy skills are strongly linked to socioeconomic background. Longitudinal studies have also identified intergenerational patterns of low achievement, where adults who have poor literacy skills are more likely to have children who also struggle with these skills.

For some communities in Australia, substantially more work is needed to understand performance. There is a scandalous lack of current evidence-based information about the levels of literacy and numeracy among Australia’s Indigenous adults. Australia chose not to oversample Indigenous adults in PIAAC 2011/12, and excluded Indigenous people in remote areas. But the continuing poor literacy and numeracy achievement of Indigenous school children in NAPLAN strongly implies that adult literacy and numeracy are almost certainly at least as far behind the attainment of Australia’s non-Indigenous population.

Why are adult skills important?

The capacity to make considered decisions in life requires good foundational literacy and numeracy skills – whether they be on the spot decisions at a workplace or when out shopping; following written instructions about a medical or health matter; making decisions about financial matters; or understanding the implications of gambling.

The results of PIAAC show that millions of Australian teenagers and adults do not have such foundational skills and are, potentially, disempowered – especially as we move further into the 21st century and its demands for higher level and more flexible skills.

Research shows that low levels of literacy and numeracy skills have a negative impact on an individual’s social and economic future. Conversely, adults with high proficiencies in literacy and numeracy are much more likely to report good health, to be employed, to have higher earnings, and to have positive social dispositions and take part more actively in community life.

Evidence also shows investing in improving the literacy and numeracy skills of the population has economic benefits for the entire nation – including by GDP and productivity.

Where do we go from here?

As a signatory to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Australia has been set a target to ‘By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.’ Yet recent data suggests Australia is making little-to-no progress towards this goal.

Results from the OECD’s equivalent international survey of 15-year-olds, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), show that Australian young people’s performance in literacy and numeracy has significantly declined since PIAAC last measured adult skills. The flow-on effects are obvious.

One of the key recommendations in ACER’s submission was that it is critical that Australia participates fully in the next, 2022, cycle of PIAAC in order to see and review how Australian adults, at a national, State and Territory level – including remote Indigenous adults and incarcerated adults – have performed in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving.

This will provide up-to-date evidence for the factors set out in the Terms of Reference of the parliamentary inquiry and the SDGs, and will enable policy-level research both in relation to adult education and how school education is preparing young people for the world as adults.


Find out more:

Read ACER’s full submission to the parliamentary inquiry on Adult literacy and its importance.

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