Americans are dumber than average at math, vocabulary, and technology

A nation of dunces.
A nation of dunces.
Image: Getty Images/Stringer
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The US boasts the world’s largest GDP and the planet’s most influential government, but its citizens aren’t all that intellectually exceptional.

That’s the conclusion of a new global report (pdf) by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which finds that Americans rank well below the worldwide average in just about every measure of skill. In math, reading and technology-driven problem-solving, the US performed worse than nearly every other country in the group of developed nations.

Americans have trouble with words…

The report defines literacy as the “ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” (p. 63). Only 78.3% of American adults reached a Level 2 (out of 5) in literacy, less than all other OECD members save Spain and Italy (p. 69). The average level of literacy in the US is on par with that of Cyprus, Poland and Austria (p. 65).

OECD Literacy
Image: OECD

…and numbers…

When it comes to math, American adults aren’t any better. In fact, they’re far worse.

Numerical proficiency in the US—defined as the “ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life” (p. 77)—ranks near the bottom of all participating countries.

Numeracy OECD
Image: OECD

Less than 34% of adults in the US managed to score at a Level 3 (out of 5) or higher, while comparable numbers for countries like Japan, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands were all well above 50% (p.80). The US also has the second largest proportion of adults—9.1%—who scored below a Level 1, the most basic level of proficiency (p. 81).

…and even computers.

Americans are pretty behind when it comes to computer literacy, too. US adults scored toward the bottom in problem solving in a technology-rich environment, which the report describes as the intersection of “computer literacy” and “cognitive skills required to solve problems” (p. 88).

Computer literacy OECD
Image: OECD

The US scored on par with Estonia, Ireland and Poland, and had more adults with proficiencies below Level 1—15.8%—than another other participating country (p. 89).

The problem mainly boils down to lacking skills among American young adults. Take a look:

Computer literacy young adults OECD
Image: OECD

While older American adults (aged 55-65) scored better than any other country, young adults did just the opposite: They were the most computer-challenged of the 20 participating countries (p. 110). 

Problem solving OECD
Image: OECD