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American millennials are behind most of their counterparts in some pretty basic skills

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
American millennials might benefit from some extra math classes.
By Sonali Kohli
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

American millennials are lagging behind their counterparts in other wealthy countries, according to a new report from the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a nonprofit that researches, develops, and administers tests.

The ETS analyzed test results from the OECD’s adult skills assessment to determine how millennials—in this study, people aged 16-34—in member countries compare on reading, math and “problem solving in a technology-rich environment.”

Finnish millennials did best on numeracy: Only a third of them were less than proficient, compared to almost two thirds of Americans. Japan scored best in literacy, where the US was also near the bottom.

The problem-solving test, meanwhile, assessed skills like gleaning data from a spreadsheet or sorting emails. In that arena (data for France, Italy and Spain are missing), the US, once again, comes last. (It’s notable that the other English-speaking countries included in the comparison—Canada, Ireland, Australia, and the UK—also mostly performed worse than the OECD average.)

The researchers looked into numeracy in more detail, and found that not only do Americans have among the lowest average numeracy scores, they also score low in the 90th and 10th percentiles, meaning that both the best- and the worst-performing American students are lagging their counterparts in other countries. This matters because numeracy is an indicator for labor market success, Anita Sands, a co-author of the report, told Quartz.

The aim of the study, according to Madeline Goodman, another co-author, was to bring attention to the fact that American millennials who will be the next generation of leadership in policy, science, and business are lacking in fundamental skills. Unequal access to education likely plays a role in the disparity, but it’s notable that scores are low even though millennials are enrolling more in higher education than previous generations. Instead of piling on degrees, the US might want to look at increasing access to technical education, to help poorer adults as well as those who can afford degrees, Goodman says.

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