Faltering Skill Sets
League Conference Spotlights Growing International Skills Gap
BOSTON — The west-coast-based attendees of Innovations conference in Boston had barely shaken off their jet lag — exacerbated by a switch to Daylight Savings Time the same day the conference began — when a cascade of data certain to snap them out of their lethargy began to unfurl.
Walt McDonald, CEO of the Educational Testing Service, was delivering the opening keynote address at the event sponsored by the League for Innovation in the Community College. His topic was “Using Education Technologies to Catalyze Success,” but the heart of his talk was the results of a study the ETS released last month titled “America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future.”
The report contained a litany of familiar but sobering data about the state of American higher education, documented by a series of charts and graphs. The bottom line: Despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous generation, America’s millennials — those born after 1980 — demonstrate weak skills in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving compared to their international peers.
Though ETS is corporate partner of the League, McDonald seemed an unusual choice to deliver an opening keynote to an audience of community college educators and administrators. The Innovations conference is usually devoted to highlighting community college best practices and technological advances.
Moreover, the efficacy and effectiveness of standardized testing is under fire on multiple fronts. The ETS’s signature Scholastic Aptitude Test, for example, has been criticized for under-predicting the performance of women in college and over-predicting the performance of men.
According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, several states impose SAT minimum score requirements on students hoping to qualify for taxpayer-funded scholarships. The practice disproportionately impacts minority students who as a group tend to score lower than white students on the test. The result is these students lose out on millions of dollars in financial assistance, according to the center.
McDonald did not address those or other standardized testing controversies, and he carefully clarified the role of the non-profit ETS.
“I am a believer in assessment,” he said. “I am keenly aware that assessment is not the same as teaching and learning.” The job of the ETS, he said, is to support both teaching and learning.
“Can assessment help? I think it can,” he said.
Based in Princeton, N.J., the non-profit ETS develops, administers and scores more than 50 million assessment tests annually in more than 180 countries. Among its tests are the SAT, Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) Test and many others.
In addition to assessments, ETS conducts educational research, analysis and policy studies. It was in that role that it produced the millenials report.
The report examines “the growing importance of education and skills in the context of the larger technological, economic, social, and political forces that have been shaping America for the past 40 years.
“To put it bluntly, we no longer share the growth and prosperity of the nation the way we did in the decades between 1940 and 1980,” the report said. “Since around 1975, those who have acquired the highest levels of education and skills have become the big winners, while those with the lowest levels of education and skills have fared the worst.”
The findings also suggested that education policies that focus on years of schooling and the conferring of credentials — the heart of the higher education completion agenda — could be misplaced.
“Far too many (American students) are graduating high school and completing postsecondary educational programs without receiving adequate skills,” the report says. “If we expect to have a better educated population and a more competitive workforce, policy makers and other stakeholders will need to shift the conversation from one of educational attainment to one that acknowledges the growing importance of skills and examines these more critically.”
The report turned up a startling skills gap between American millenials and those from other countries.
Even those young Americans who have already earned college degrees lag far behind their international peers. The characteristics traditionally cited for achievement gaps had little meaning in this study; America’s best-performing and most-educated millennials, those who are native born, and those from affluent families performed poorly in comparison to their peers internationally.
The ETS report is based on the results of the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). It’s a household study developed under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In the United States, the study was conducted in 2011-12 with a nationally representative sample of 5,000 adults between the ages of 16 and 65. Similar samples of adults were surveyed in each of the 21 other participating countries.
The results were disaggregated by the ETS to focus on millennials because these young adults are the most recent product of our educational systems. They have also attained the most years of schooling of any cohort in American history. Moreover, millennials will shape the economic and social landscape of our country for many years to come, the report said.
The study found that:
• In literacy — the ability to understand, evaluate, use, and engage with written text — millenials scored lower than 15 of the 22 participating countries. Only millennials in Spain and Italy scored lower.
• In numeracy — the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas — U.S. millennials ranked last, along with Italy and Spain.
• In problem solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE) — using digital technology to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks — U.S. millennials also ranked last, along with the Slovak Republic, Ireland and Poland.
The youngest segment of the American millennial cohort (16- to 24-year-olds), who could be in the labor force for the next 50 years, ranked last in numeracy along with Italy and among the bottom countries in PS- TRE. In literacy, only peers in Italy and Spain scored lower.
“The comparatively low skill level of U.S. millennials is likely to test our international competitiveness over the coming decades,” the report contends. “If our future rests in part on the skills of this cohort—as these individuals represent the workforce, parents, educators, and our political bedrock—then that future looks bleak.”
The findings represent a sharp turnabout. Baby boomers – those aged 50 to 65 – rank at or near the top in all of the categories, McDonald said.
“We’ve gone from a nation at the top,” he said. “We now have a millennial generation that is near the bottom.”
The report also found that the gap between America’s highest- and lowest-performing millenials is among the largest in the world. Failure to address the issue could have dire consequences, according to the report, including worsening inequality.
“As a country, we need to address the question of whether we can afford (in both a moral and fiscal sense) to write off nearly half of our younger-adult population as not having the skills needed to effectively engage as full and active participants in their own future and that of our nation,” the report concludes “Skills or knowledge can either feed inequality or be an equalizing force. We must decide.”