American High School Graduates Flunk International Study of Basic Skills
A new study from the Department of Education has identified a troubling trend: American high school graduates perform much more poorly on measures of basic reading, math and technology skills than their peers in other developed countries. In fact, the scores were so low they were equivalent to those of other nations’ high school dropouts.
The study, part of the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), found that young adults with a high school diploma in the U.S. are less literate than their peers in other countries — a problem which not only affects their mobility in the workforce, but also puts them at risk of health issues down the road.
They’re also unable to answer basic math questions that they might encounter in everyday life. For example, the average American adult with only a high school diploma doesn’t know how to calculate the total price they’ll pay if they purchase two items at the store advertised as “buy one, get one half off.”
But the most troubling results are those related to basic technological skills — an area where the U.S. came dead last. According to the study, we aren’t equipping our high school students to do even the most simple tasks on computers. Many respondents were unsure how to use email, buy or return items online, use a drop-down menu, name a file on a computer, or send a text message. While Americans performed poorly across the board on the computer portion of the test, it was racial minorities that were the hardest hit by this information gap.
It should go without saying that these results are terrifying — basic computer literacy is becoming absolutely essential for most jobs, even those outside of the tech sector. If young adults struggle to send emails, how are they even going to apply for jobs with online applications? While the FCC has proposed a new plan to help subsidize internet access for low-income households, it bears asking how useful this will actually be if the people receiving assistance have no idea how to use the technology.
The inability to do basic math is also troubling — not only will that make it difficult for these unskilled workers to hold down entry-level jobs in fields like retail or food service, but it’s not a promising sign when the average American household carries $15,762 in credit card debt and pays thousands of dollars in interest alone each year. It’s no wonder so many people struggle with debt when they can’t accurately calculate the risks of borrowing money.
There’s one other finding of the DOE study with disturbing implications: the fact that the American knowledge gap disappears in young adults who have attended college or received a postgraduate degree. While it’s a good sign that students who pursue higher education are able to keep up with their international peers, with tuition costs skyrocketing, this leaves young adults with a difficult choice: take on tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt in order to remain competitive, or remain debt-free but deficient in the basic skills most other developed nations consider essential for all citizens, regardless of education level.
We need to do better to prepare high school graduates to live independently, whether or not they immediately go on to attend college. Unfortunately, given how difficult it’s been to convince Americans of the benefits of Common Core standards, it seems improving the outcomes for high school graduates may continue to be an uphill battle.