Schooled But Not Skilled: American Millennials Trail International Peers

American millennials are racking up more diplomas than previous generations.

But they still fall short in skills and smarts when compared to their peers across the globe, a new study found.

The study by the Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit that develops, administers and scores more than 50 million tests annually, found that U.S. young adults between the ages of 16 to 34 demonstrate weak skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared with international students. This comes even amid Census and Pew Research Center data showing American millennials are the country's most educated generation.

“While it is true that, on average, the more years of schooling one completes, the more skills one acquires, this report suggests that far too many are graduating high school and completing postsecondary educational programs without receiving adequate skills,” Irwin Kirsch, director of ETS’s Center for Global Assessment, wrote.“If we expect to have a better educated population and a more competitive workforce, policymakers and other stakeholders will need to shift the conversation from one of educational attainment to one that acknowledges the growing importance of skills.”

The 67-page report, available here, used data obtained by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, a study developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that assesses and compares basic skills and the broad range of competencies of adults around the world. The PIAAC compared the U.S. to 21 other member countries of the OECD, focusing on those residents born after 1980 and who were 16 to 34 years of age at the time of the study.

Researchers found that the average scores for American millennials were lower than in most other countries. American millennials also ranked at the bottom in numeracy and problem solving involving technology. Even the best performing and most educated milliennials, who study authors said are typically native born and starting with the greatest economic advantage, do not perform well compared to their international peers, the report found.

American millennials with a four-year bachelor’s degree scored higher in numeracy than their peers in just two countries: Poland and Spain. Those with a master’s or research degree scored higher than their peers in just three countries. And students whose highest level of education was less than high school or high school scored lower than their peers in nearly every other participating country.

ETS researchers Madeline Goodman, Anita Sands and Richard Coley, who wrote the report, said policymakers should take note of the trend, as the millennial generation will shape the economic and social landscape for America’s future.

“The findings are import across a lot of different issues," Goodman said. " … It does seem like it points out a systematic challenge that we have and need to confront. The largest take away here is that skills are an important part of the situation. … all of these issues should be set in the context of inequality of opportunity.”

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