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Nearly three years ago, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris released results of a test administered to more than 5,000 15-year-old students in 65 countries. The rankings were eye-opening, to say the least.
In all three categories-reading, science and math-students from China were No. 1. By contrast, U.S. students placed 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math.
A few weeks later, the state Board of Regents released a study showing that only about a quarter of public high school students in New York leave ready for college or a career-and in the city of Rochester, the figure was 5.1 percent.
Together, those reports delivered a message about U.S. students' readiness to compete in a global economy.
Now a new OECD report examines skill levels of adults in nearly two dozen developed countries-and the message is basically the same.
The report, released last month, looked at literacy, numeracy and problem solving in information-rich digital environments. U.S. adults were near the middle of the pack in literacy, but in skills related to numbers and technology they ranked close to the bottom. Japan and Finland ranked first and second, respectively, in all three areas.
While U.S. adults generally trail their peers in other developed economies, a closer look at the data is revealing. The report does not show, for instance, that this country has fewer people with high proficiency in these skills. Rather, more Americans than average are at both the high and low ends of the spectrum.
The report also shows that while older Americans rank in the middle for literacy skills, those in younger age brackets fall near the bottom. This fact, coupled with the earlier OECD study of students worldwide, signals a clear downward trend.
U.S. employers who face increasing foreign competition should take heart in one fact: As the OECD researchers note, "much of learning takes place outside formal education," and adult education and training can have a strong, positive impact on skills proficiency.
So without significant improvements to the U.S. education system, employers will need to carry a heavier load to remain competitive.
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